October 20, 2014

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev case: the shortest status conference ever

Filed under: law & crime by Victoria Liberty @ 9:38 pm

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

Today another status conference took place in the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev case. This was the shortest and probably the least eventful status conference so far, beginning at 10:00 and ending by 10:15.

The Tsarnaev defense team was represented by Judy Clarke, David Bruck, and William Fick, and the prosecution by William Weinreb, Nadine Pellegrini, and Aloke Chakravarty. The two sides shook hands and chatted a bit before Judge George O’Toole took the bench. In the gallery were the usual media and law enforcement officials. Somewhat surprisingly, outside the courthouse were a handful of protesters holding signs criticizing the government’s prosecution of Tsarnaev and the shooting death of Ibragim Todashev at the hands of FBI agents. According to news reports, one of the protesters was Todashev’s mother-in-law. There was a larger than usual security presence, leading some to speculate that Tsarnaev himself might make a surprise appearance (he didn’t).

The status conference provided a few new details about the trial schedule and jury selection process. Witness lists will be due by December 15, the Monday before the final December 18 status conference. Unsurprisingly, the first week of the trial, which will begin on January 5th, will be “consumed with jury selection,” according to Judge O’Toole. No one will have to worry about calling witnesses until the next week or later. Jury selection will be, in Judge O’Toole’s words, a “rolling admissions policy.” Groups of potential jurors will come in and fill out questionnaires, some will advance to individual voir dire, some of these will be disqualified for cause or through the exercise of peremptory challenges, and once enough have made it through this step, they’ll be seated on the jury and the process will be done. Judge O’Toole said that the court will need at least 1000 people to fill out questionnaires. He predicted that about 10% of these will make it through to the individual voir dire stage, leaving a pool of 100 to be whittled down further through challenges for cause and peremptory challenges. When asked by Attorney Weinreb, Judge O’Toole mentioned that there’s a chance that jury selection will be delayed one day, to January 6th, if there are other jury trials beginning on the same day.

Additionally, Judge O’Toole decided to deny without prejudice the defense motion to suppress the statements that Tsarnaev made while being questioned by investigators at Beth Israel Hospital. The government is not planning to use these statements as evidence in its case in chief.

Finally, at the end of the hearing, Attorney Fick mentioned the recent Newsweek article by Michele McPhee about Tsarnaev’s family and the women in his life. He cited this as another example of the “troubling leak issue” that the defense team has complained to the court about before, and mentioned that the article cited “high-level law enforcement sources,” despite repeated warnings from the judge and U.S. Attorney against speaking to the press. He said that he plans to make an official submission to the court about this article in the near future. Judge O’Toole said that he hadn’t seen the article but would look into it.

The next status conference is scheduled for November 12th at 10:00. The parties will likely discuss the defense team’s motion to compel the prosecution to turn over documents related to the 2011 triple murder in Waltham and Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s suspected involvement in it.

October 14, 2014

Robel Phillipos trial continues

Filed under: law & crime by Victoria Liberty @ 10:45 pm

The trial of Robel Phillipos continued today in Boston’s federal court. This morning, FBI Special Agent James Scripture, who examined the defendant’s iphone, continued his testimony, and the court viewed text messages between Phillipos and his friends in the days after the Boston Marathon bombing.

The Boston Globe has a great chart of these texts. In them, Phillipos chats casually with alleged bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, has brief exchanges with Azamat Tazhayakov and Dias Kadyrbayev, the two other friends who are charged with interfering in the bombing investigation, and tells other friends about being questioned by the FBI and recognizing Tsarnaev as the bombing suspect pictured in news reports.

After Agent Scripture, the next witness to take the stand was Quon Le Phan, who was Robel’s suite-mate at UMass Dartmouth during sophomore year (2012-2013). He described both Robel and Dzhokhar as friends and said that Azamat and Dias “occasionally” came to visit as well. “We’d play games and we’d smoke,” he replied when asked what the group did together. When asked what they smoked, he replied, “marijuana.”

During spring semester, Robel lived at home, but on April 18th, 2013, the Thursday after the bombing, he visited Quon in his room around noon. “He had a marijuana hearing,” Quon explained. “He was speaking to the administrator on campus.” When asked what the two did before this meeting, Quon testified, “We smoked.” When asked what they smoked, he replied, “marijuana.” This elicited some slight laughter from the gallery. When asked how often the two smoked together, Quon replied, “plenty of times.” He added that they smoked at various times of day, including before class.

At dinner, Quon saw the newly-released photos of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects on his phone. “I saw similarities in one suspect… to Dzhokhar,” he testified. After dinner, he met up with Robel, and “we talked about how the Boston Marathon suspect, one of them, looked like Dzhokhar.” They and another roommate watched coverage of the bombing investigation on TV. After 30 minutes, Robel left, saying that he was going to Pine Dale, the dorm where Dzhokhar lived. Quon continued to watch the news “for a majority of the night.”

The next morning, April 19th, Robel came to Quon’s room and woke him up at about 7:00 a.m. “He pointed out that the suspect was Dzhokhar,” Quon testified. Robel left a backpack containing marijuana in the room. Later that day, Robel was at Dias and Azamat’s off-campus apartment when he called Quon, sounding “rushed” and urgent” and asking to be picked up because “he didn’t want to be there.” Quon did so, then tried to return to campus, but was unable to because the campus was locked down. So he, Robel, and his roommate went to McDonald’s and then to Quon’s mother’s apartment in Worcester. The group continued to discuss the bombing investigation, manhunt, and lockdown. At 9:30 p.m., Quon drove Robel to a Price Chopper supermarket, where Robel was interviewed by the FBI. Finally, Quon returned to his dorm, where he watched news about Dzhokhar’s arrest.

During cross-examination, defense attorney Susan Church asked Quon whether he and Robel smoked marijuana from a joint or from a bong. He was then asked to describe what a bong is, and drew laughs when he said he didn’t know how to explain it.

The prosecution will wrap up their case tomorrow with testimony from one more FBI agent. It is unknown whether Phillipos will take the stand.


October 10, 2014

Robel Phillipos trial recap

Filed under: law & crime by Victoria Liberty @ 12:05 am

This week I was able to observe some bits and pieces of the Robel Phillipos trial. Phillipos is one of the friends of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev who is accused of helping to cover up Tsarnaev’s alleged role in the Boston Marathon bombing. He faces two charges of making false statements to federal investigators which carry up to 8 years in prison each.

Numerous friends and family of Phillipos have been present in the courtroom, filling the entire left-hand section of benches. The brother of Azamat Tazhayakov, a friend of Tsarnaev who was convicted of obstruction of justice back in June, has also been sitting in on the trial.

Because I was not there for all of the testimony, this blog post is absolutely not comprehensive, but I figured it may be of interest to those following the case.

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August 21, 2014

Dias Kadyrbayev pleads guilty

Filed under: law & crime by Victoria Liberty @ 11:06 pm

Dias and Dzhokhar

Dias Kadyrbayev, a friend of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev who was charged with obstructing the investigation of the Boston Marathon bombing, pleaded guilty today in federal court. The change of plea hearing took place today at 2:00 before Judge Douglas Woodlock.

Kadyrbayev was escorted into the courtroom promptly at 2:00, wearing jeans and a blue, short-sleeved polo. He conferred with his defense attorney, Robert Stahl, before Judge Woodlock took the bench. In addition to the usual media, spectators, and law enforcement officials, Kadyrbayev’s father was in attendance. He was nearly alone in the defense section of the gallery, accompanied by another man in a suit who according to news reports was a representative from the Kazakhstan consulate.

Judge Woodlock told the court that he had a copy of the plea agreement in hand, which was signed by both the defense and prosecution. A Russian interpreter was sworn in, and sat at the defense table in case Kadyrbayev needed some translation help.

Then, Kadyrbayev himself was sworn in, and Judge Woodlock questioned him to ensure that he was making a voluntary and informed decision to plead guilty. In response to Judge Woodlock’s questions, Kadyrbayev said that he was 20 years old, that he had completed his freshman year of college, was born in Kazakhstan, and is not a U.S. citizen. He answered in the negative when asked if he is taking any medication or seeing any physician or mental health professional for any physical or mental problem. When asked if he had ever smoked marijuana, he replied, “yes, I did,” but denied ever using any other drugs, and said that his past marijuana use has no impact on his ability to make important decisions. When asked if he felt ready and able to make the decision to plead guilty today, he replied, “yes, sir.” He confirmed that no one had threatened him or promised him anything in return for his guilty plea (other than the terms outlined in the plea agreement).

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August 13, 2014

In praise of the heroic holdout juror

Filed under: law & crime by Victoria Liberty @ 9:59 pm

Last week a mistrial was declared in the case of Dr. Joseph Zolot and nurse Lisa Pliner, who were facing federal criminal charges for prescribing opiates. They were charged with conspiracy to violate federal drug laws and eight counts of drug distribution. 11 of the 12 jurors wanted to convict them. And according to this article in the Boston Globe, the sole holdout juror wrote a letter to the judge in which she described her experiences and how she was bullied during deliberations. For standing her ground and sticking to her principles in the face of peer pressure, this juror is, in my opinion, nothing short of heroic.

Here are some excerpts from the juror’s letter:

“One of the jurors started yelling at me . . . and I left the courthouse thinking that I would rather break a toe than spend another day stuck in a room with the other jurors. Whenever anyone gets irritated it does seem like I have become the scapegoat…. Only four people bothered to read what I wrote and the rest seemed to just dismiss my ideas. Some, but not all of the jurors have started to accuse me of not being as thorough as they are. I do not agree with this. I believe this is just because they are frustrated with me and have stopped respecting my ideas… Deliberations may be edging towards misconduct (as I interpret the situation).”

The juror added that other jurors proposed trading votes, that and some switched their votes from the minority view to the majority, with one explaining that “she had to.”

It’s tragic that 6 people died from overdosing on painkillers prescribed by Zolot and Pliner. But as harsh as it may sound, these people made the choice to take drugs, with full knowledge of the danger involved. Doctors are not responsible for the decisions that their patients make. It’s wrong that medical professionals can face criminal charges merely for not being strict enough in denying their patients access to medications.

So for giving these two individuals, who in my opinion should never have been charged, another shot at justice, the holdout juror did the right thing. I don’t know if I would be able to stick to my convictions while outnumbered 11 to one.

The judge, Judge Patti Saris, called the juror’s note “improper,” but I couldn’t disagree more. The bullying experienced by the holdout juror shines a light on the problems inherent in our jury system. Any system that requires people to be unanimous is unfair to those who hold unpopular views. With a hung jury considered an extremely undesirable outcome, and judges customarily urging deadlocked juries to resume deliberations until they reach a verdict, it can be nearly impossible for a minority juror to stick to his or her beliefs. Unless all of the jurors happen to genuinely share the same opinion, this system leads inevitably to jurors being pressured into voting against their conscience. Perhaps a better system would be one in which jurors simply vote, either anonymously or not, and either immediately after closing arguments or after a period of group discussion of pre-determined length. In any case, the holdout juror’s actions took a lot of courage and made me think. For that, I salute her.

August 9, 2014

Neutral, unbiased language is not racist (my thoughts on #APHeadlines)

Filed under: culture & social issues,law & crime by Victoria Liberty @ 5:19 pm

You are probably wondering why anyone would even need to write a blog post explaining the above. But reactions to the verdict in the Renisha McBride case demonstrate that apparently, this seemingly obvious truth is not obvious to everyone.

On Thursday, suburban Detroit homeowner Theodore Wafer was convicted of second-degree murder for shooting Renisha McBride, who had arrived on his porch drunk and banged repeatedly on the door. She had just been in a car crash and was looking for help from people living nearby. He claimed self defense. When the verdict was announced, the Associated Press had the audacity to tweet: “Suburban Detroit homeowner convicted of second-degree murder for killing woman who showed up drunk on porch.”

Derrick Clifton at Mic.com characterized this as a “particularly galling tweet” which “dehumanized the victim, invoking a long history of ignorance and victim-blaming endured by the African-American community.” In a column on BET.com, Keith Boykin called the tweet “sensationalistic” and “victim-shaming” and wrote that the AP “robbed Renisha McBride of her dignity in death.” Goldie Taylor, someone who was interviewed in Boykin’s column, said that the AP used “code words” that “seemed to be casting a moral judgment on the victim” and reflected a “cultural bias” in favor of Wafer. Rashad Robinson, also interviewed in Boykin’s column, said the AP “stoked the flames of fear and racial tension to sell a story.” Numerous people took to Twitter to ridicule the AP, using the hashtag, #APHeadlines.

I have read this tweet over and over again in my head. For the life of me, I cannot find anything even remotely offensive or objectionable about it. I see nothing “galling,” “ignorant,” or “dehumanizing” about summarizing, without comment or opinion, the basic facts of a case. Clifton criticizes the AP for “reducing the situation to a ‘Detroit homeowner’ who ‘fatally shot a drunk woman’ on his porch.” Well, yes. That is precisely what happened.

The fact that anyone would be even remotely offended by this tweet, let alone so offended that they would expend time and effort ridiculing the AP, boggles my mind.

Boykin contrasts the AP’s headline with that of the Detroit Free Press, which tweeted, “Theodore Wafer convicted of second-degree murder, manslaughter and felony firearm in the fatal shooting of Renisha McBride.” Either of these headlines is acceptable. If anything, one could argue that the Free Press’s headline is biased against Wafer for listing all the crimes he was convicted of when second-degree murder is by far the most significant one. Additionally, Boykin suggested that it would be more appropriate to describe McBride as “unarmed” than “drunk.” I also think that this, if anything, would be a less neutral choice and would arguably create an impression of bias against Wafer.

And then there is the accusation of “victim-blaming.” No one is “victim-blaming” here. There is no debate about whether or not a victim should be blamed. The debate is about whether McBride or Wafer is the true victim. I think there are legitimate arguments on both sides. It is not right to imply, as Clifton and Boykin do, that McBride is obviously a victim of murder and Wafer obviously a murderer. Those who believe Wafer acted in self-defense are not “victim-blaming;” they simply have a different opinion about who the victim is. But regardless of whom you believe was the victim and whom you believe was the aggressor, the AP’s tweet did not take a side on this matter. The AP most certainly is not “victim-blaming” by reporting neutrally and factually (which is exactly what a news outlet is supposed to do).

We’ve now reached a state of affairs in which neutral, unbiased language is considered “galling,” and where anything other than being biased against white people is considered racist. All those who ridiculed the AP for the apparently grave sin of not being sufficiently biased and inaccurate should be ashamed of themselves.

Perhaps the most ironic tweet was the following:

First of all, the whole idea of “black Twitter” involves grouping people together by race, and is therefore racist. Second of all, why the pompous gloating about how the AP was “taken down a notch”? That implies that the AP did something wrong, or that there was something righteous or honorable about the hostile reactions of “black Twitter” (whatever the heck that is). Neither of these is the case. Third of all, the AP “put this on itself”? Really? A news organization brought completely unjustified ridicule from hordes of logic-challenged bullies on itself by tweeting a neutral, unbiased headline? Now that is victim-blaming.

July 24, 2014

Drama-filled verdict in Probation Department trial

Filed under: law & crime by Victoria Liberty @ 11:41 pm


After seven days of deliberations, a jury finally returned a verdict in the corruption trial of former Massachusetts Commissioner of Probation John J. O’Brien and his deputies, Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke. Both O’Brien and Tavares were convicted of racketeering and four counts of mail fraud. They had been charged with eight counts of mail fraud each. Burke was convicted only of conspiracy to commit racketeering. Although the jury did not find that the defendants actually bribed legislators, they found them guilty of providing “improper gratuities” by hiring legislators’ friends and relatives in an attempt to curry favor.

The jury reached their verdict at about 2:15 this afternoon, causing Courtroom 18 to rapidly fill with people. Shortly before 2:30, the jury filed in, Judge William G. Young looked over the verdict slip, and his clerk began reading the verdicts on each of the charges. Because there were 109 different counts and sub-counts, this took quite a while. The defendants’ family members, who filled at least two rows of benches, became very emotional, loudly sobbing and at least one person shouting, “The government is corrupt!” O’Brien’s wife even fainted, and someone called for a medic. The courthouse nurse arrived with a wheelchair. Eventually an ambulance pulled up outside the courthouse with sirens blaring, and O’Brien’s wife was taken away on a stretcher. Surprisingly, as all this was going on, the clerk did not pause in her reading of the verdicts, which made it difficult to hear the specifics.

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