April 17, 2014

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev case: hearing on SAMs, discovery, and more

Filed under: law & crime by Victoria Liberty @ 6:52 am

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

Yesterday, a year and a day after the Boston Marathon bombings, defense attorneys and prosecutors in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev met for another pretrial conference to argue about various motions that have recently been filed. The conference began at 10:00 a.m. sharp in courtroom 9 of the Moakley Federal Courthouse, before Judge George O’Toole.

As usual, numerous members of the media and the public were in attendance, as well as U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz and members of her staff and other federal agencies. In the section of the gallery reserved for victims and their families, I saw bombing survivor Marc Fucarile and his fiancée, Jennifer Regan. There was one bench reserved for the defendant’s family members, friends, and/or members of the defense team, but it remained empty.

“No selfies,” joked a court officer, after giving the usual warning to refrain from taking any photos or videos during the court proceedings.

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February 12, 2014

Tsarnaev trial scheduled for November

Filed under: law & crime by Victoria Liberty @ 10:59 pm

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

A pretrial conference took place this morning in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the alleged Boston Marathon bomber. The biggest piece of news is that Judge George O’Toole scheduled Tsarnaev’s trial for November 3, 2014, far earlier than the defense team would like. In a status report filed jointly by defense lawyers and prosecutors on Monday, both sides laid out their recommended deadlines for various motions and witness disclosures, with the defense suggesting a trial date of September 2015 at the earliest.

Although Judge O’Toole sounded firm and not open to discussion when he announced his decision, it’s hard for me to believe that the trial in such a high-profile and important case could take place merely a year and a half after the bombing. Legal experts don’t think so either, including David Frank of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, who tweeted:

In addition to scheduling, some other topics, including discovery, were discussed as well, but we didn’t learn a ton of interesting new information. As usual, Tsarnaev himself was not in court, but some of his alleged victims, including Marc Fucarile, who lost a leg in the bombings, were in attendance. They sat with staff members from the U.S. Attorney’s office and chatted briefly with U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz. Interestingly, Ortiz also appeared to be very friendly with defense attorney Judy Clarke, and chatted with her as well before the proceedings began. All four of Tsarnaev’s lawyers – Clarke, Miriam Conrad, William Fick, and Timothy Watkins – were at the defense table. The prosecution was represented by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Nadine Pellegrini and Aloke Chakravarty. William Weinreb, the third prosecutor, was running late and didn’t end up making it.

“By and large, with some exceptions, I think the government’s suggestion is the more reasonable of the two,” said Judge O’Toole, with respect to the schedule. In a no-nonsense tone of voice, he set out the following deadlines:

April 9, 2014: Defense motions to suppress

May 7, 2014: All other motions addressing legal issues

June 11. 2014: Defense motions for a change of venue (also another status conference on this date)

October 20, 2014: Final pre-trial conference

November 3, 2014: Jury selection begins

Judge O’Toole called this calendar “a realistic and a fair one.” He acknowledged that the trial will be lengthy (12 weeks for the guilt phase and 6 weeks for the sentencing phase, according to the status report), but urged both sides to keep it as short as possible and to avoid presenting redundant or unnecessary evidence. “This is a unique case, obviously,” he pointed out, in a significant understatement. “Not everything that can be presented, for either side, needs to be, necessarily.”

Then came the familiar (to anyone who has been following the previous status conferences in this case) bickering about discovery. AUSA Chakravarty told the court that the government has provided the defense team with over 67 terabytes of electronic discovery materials, that the defense team has gotten to view physical evidence, and that they are in the process of arranging for the defense team to view some 2000 additional items, including everything from ball bearings to bomb components, located at the FBI lab in Quantico, Virginia. Chakravarty also mentioned the existence of “larger exhibits, shall we say, vehicles,” at other locations in Boston. He complained that the defense team’s requests are often open-ended and difficult to comply with. Adding to the delays, he said, is the defense team’s request that separate staff members, who are not part of the prosecution team, photocopy documents for them so as not to tip off the government about their strategy. Indicating some willingness to delay the trial date, Judge O’Toole warned the prosecutors that discovery disagreements such as these “could endanger the schedule.”

Defense attorney Clarke agreed that they’ve had “a little bit of a sluggish start to reviewing physical evidence.” But she placed the blame for this on the government. “It’s not the defense dragging its feet,” she contended. ” Discovery has been a laborious process and in my experience, far from the norm… It’s just been a laboriously slow, cumbersome process.” She questioned why the government is so reluctant to turn over evidence and is sticking to only what they are absolutely required to share by law. There is a “whole host of digital items that are pending copying,” and the government has not yet set up an appointment for the defense team to view the 2000 items at Quantico. Additionally, Clarke argued that logistical difficulties such as weather, travel, and the Olympics, as well as the sheer volume of evidence that the defense team will have to sift through, make the November trial date impossible. It took the defense team an entire week last month to review 600-800 items of evidence, she said, so going over all the items at Quantico will be extremely time-consuming.

Then, Clarke’s co-counsel, Miriam Conrad, stood up to add her two cents. “Ms. Conrad cannot help herself,” Clarke told Judge O’Toole, who quipped, “There is precedent for that.” Conrad was animated in describing how the defense team has sent three discovery letters to the government. They sent the first of these on December 9th, received an email on December 18th saying that the government would get back to them after the holidays, and got “radio silence” until February 7th, when the government asked them to clarify their request.

The two sides briefly discussed expert witness disclosures, but Judge O’Toole did not set deadlines for these yet. “Let’s not kid ourselves,” AUSA Chakravarty pointed out, “the issue here is going to be the penalty.”

Finally, Judge O’Toole instructed the prosecutors to provide the defense with a list of all the items at Quantico. When it took Chakravarty some time to give a definite answer, Clarke quipped, “Your honor, you have a black robe, and it took you that long to get an answer from the government.” And that was it for today’s hearing, which lasted from 10:00 to shortly after 10:30.

Some relevant documents can be found below:

Joint Status Report filed 2/10/2014

Tsarnaev Notice of Intent to Seek Death Penalty

December 22, 2013

There’s nothing offensive about good journalism

Filed under: law & crime by Victoria Liberty @ 8:41 pm

Remembering the victims of the Marathon Bombing-Copley Square

Last Sunday, the Boston Globe ran a lengthy, in-depth article called “The Fall of the House of Tsarnaev,” which detailed the background and family life of alleged Boston Marathon bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Personally, I really liked this article. It was factual and trustworthy, not trying to prove any particular point of view, but simply presenting information obtained by two veteran journalists, David Filipov and Patricia Wen, during an impartial, six-month-long investigation. I liked that contrary to the popular opinion that Dzhokhar must have been pressured or brainwashed by his older brother, the Globe article portrays Dzhokhar as defiant, unafraid to stand up for himself, a risk-taker, a leader, and most likely an equal participant in the bombings.

I am appalled at the angry and insulting reactions to this article, voiced by the Globe‘s rival newspaper, the Boston Herald, as well as by bombing victims.

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November 25, 2013

In praise of Bulger juror #12

Filed under: law & crime by Victoria Liberty @ 8:17 am

During Whitey Bulger’s trial this summer, it was sometimes disturbing to hear the details of the murders and extortions committed by the Winter Hill Gang. But what was disturbing in a different (and possibly worse) way were the comments that Steven Davis made outside the courthouse to Janet Uhlar, who was Juror #12 on the case. Davis’s sister, Debra, was murdered in 1981. She was dating Stephen Flemmi, Bulger’s partner in crime. Although Bulger was indicted in her murder, along with 18 others, as part of a racketeering charge, the jurors could not agree on his guilt in Debra’s death and rendered a “no finding” verdict.

Despite the fact that Bulger was convicted of only 11 of the 19 murders that he was charged with, Judge Denise Casper decided to allow family members of all 19 people, including Davis, to speak at Bulger’s sentencing. She justified this decision by pointing out that the preponderance of the evidence standard, not the reasonable doubt standard, governs sentencing proceedings. Additionally, she noted that Bulger was “convicted of the overarching conspiracy which alleged these acts as part of the scheme in Count One… Even if this could not be concluded from the verdict rendered under the preponderance of the evidence standard, I conclude that such acts were at least committed by those co-defendants in furtherance of the scheme alleged in Count One and were reasonably foreseeable as part of the conspiracy.” Judge Casper went so far as to say, “there’s nothing about this conclusion… that undermines the verdict.”

Uhlar advocated against this decision, sending a letter to the judge prior to the sentencing and telling NBC News, “It’s a violation of the judicial system if it’s allowed. Basically, they’re ignoring the verdict on those particular acts.”

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November 21, 2013

Mixed verdict for Enrico Ponzo

Filed under: law & crime by Victoria Liberty @ 11:48 pm

Enrico Ponzo

Yesterday, Enrico Ponzo was found guilty of attempting to murder Francis “Cadillac Frank” Salemme, who went on to become the boss of the New England mafia. Ponzo was accused of being part of a rival faction within the mafia, led by capo Robert Carrozza (“Bobby Russo”), that battled with Salemme for control of La Cosa Nostra. Ponzo and Vincent Michael Marino (“Gigi Portalla”) shot Salemme in the chest and leg outside the IHOP in Saugus, MA on June 16, 1989. He survived and eventually emerged triumphant in the mafia civil war.

Ponzo was also convicted yesterday of attempting to murder another mafia associate, Joseph Cirame, as well as money laundering, extortion, conspiracy to distribute cocaine and marijuana, attempted witness tampering, and unlawful flight to avoid prosecution. As is common in organized crime cases (most notably that of James “Whitey” Bulger), Ponzo was convicted of a count of racketeering conspiracy, of which many of these crimes were charged as predicate acts. He was, however, acquitted of the murders of mobsters Richard Devlin and Joseph Souza, and the attempted murders of Richard Gillis, Michael Prochilo, Stephen Rossetti, and Timothy Lawrence “Larry” O’Toole.

Although he himself was never a “made man,” the government alleged that Ponzo committed many of these crimes in an attempt to secure mafia membership.

Since going on the lam in 1994, Ponzo took the alias Jeffrey “Jay” Shaw and lived as a cattle farmer in Idaho, where he settled down with a girlfriend and had two children. He was arrested in 2011, with $100,000 in cash, $65,000 in gold coins, and various firearms. Ponzo was one of the last defendants from the heyday of the mafia to go on trial. 14 other mobsters were indicted along with him, all of whom are either in prison, dead, acquitted, or done with their sentences.

His sentencing is scheduled for March 6, 2014 when, according to the Boston Globe, he could face up to 20 years in prison.

To learn more about Ponzo, his associates in crime, and the workings of the mafia, you can read Ponzo’s indictment here.

November 16, 2013

Enrico Ponzo: closing arguments

Filed under: law & crime by Victoria Liberty @ 4:44 pm

Enrico Ponzo

On Thursday, closing arguments took place in the trial of Boston mafia associate Enrico Ponzo. Ponzo is charged with attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder, extortion, distribution of cocaine and marijuana, money laundering, and flight to avoid prosecution. He was arrested in 2011 while living as a farmer named Jay Shaw in Idaho.

Ponzo entered the courtroom carrying a large trash bag over his shoulder, filled with notebooks and papers. His grayish-black beard was neatly trimmed, and he wore a gray suit and silver tie. He appeared to be in a good mood, grinning broadly at one point and speaking intently with his lawyer, John Cunha, and paralegals.

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November 14, 2013

Whitey Bulger officially sentenced to life in prison

Filed under: law & crime by Victoria Liberty @ 5:04 pm

Whitey Bulger

James J. “Whitey” Bulger was sentenced today to two consecutive terms of life in prison, plus 5 years. At today’s short, 10:00 a.m. hearing, Judge Denise Casper explained her reasoning for the sentence after hearing victim impact statements and lawyers’ arguments yesterday. Like yesterday, Courtroom 19 was filled with victims, their family members, journalists, and law enforcement officials. Bulger’s brother, Jackie, sat alone. Unlike during the trial, when he wore jeans and t-shirts, Whitey was clad in an orange Plymouth County Correctional Facility jumpsuit with a white t-shirt underneath. On his face, he wore his usual stoic, indifferent expression.

“As for my reasons for this sentence, Mr. Bulger,” Judge Casper began, “it is hard to know where to begin.” Was it in 1972, when Bulger first became involved in organized crime? Was it in 1994 when he went on the lam? Or on June 27, 2011 when he was finally arrested in Santa Monica, CA? Judge Casper read the names of the 11 people whose murders Bulger was convicted of: Paul McGonagle, Edward Connors, Thomas King, Richard Castucci, Roger Wheeler, Brian Halloran, Michael Donahue, John Callahan, Arthur Barrett, John McIntyre, and Deborah Hussey. And she mentioned that he inflicted fear and risk of harm on many others to further his criminal enterprise.

“The scope, the callousness, the depravity of your crimes are almost unfathomable,” said Judge Casper. “The testimony of human suffering that you and your associates inflicted on others was, at times, agonizing to listen to and painful to watch.” And these crimes were made even worse by the fact that “at base, the motivation for your entire criminal enterprise was money.” Judge Casper said that at times the testimony was almost like something out of a movie, and that she wished it was.

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