Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Trial: Meet the Lawyers Defending the Boston Bomber


In a recent op-ed published the Washington Post, Abbe Smith, a professor of law and the director of the Criminal Defense and Prisoner Advocacy Clinic at Georgetown University asks: “What motivates a lawyer to defend a Tsarnaev, a Castro, or a Zimmerman?” This question often emerges in headlines in the wake of a tragedy like the April 15 bombing in Boston, which killed three people and injured more than 260. The question, in its many variations, is often asked with a tone of accusation, as though a defense lawyer, in the act of defending the accused, is excusing or even endorsing the crimes committed. For example, during the 1994 court hearings for Carlos the Jackal, the Venezuelan terrorist who kidnapped 11 OPEC oil ministers and led a series of bombings and shootings in the 1970s and 1980s, Jacques Verges, Carlos’ defense lawyer, was accused of being Carlos’ comrade-in-arms.

It is easy to accuse a criminal defense lawyer of being “soft on crime,” or as Smith says, “of investing all our sympathy in our clients and having none for the victims.” Yet in representing clients like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a defense lawyer is preserving the rule of law.

On June 27, a federal grand jury returned a 30-count federal indictment against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev for his “alleged role in using weapons of mass destruction at the Boston Marathon.” Of the 30 charges, 17 carry the death penalty if Tsarnaev is convicted. If Tsarnaev is guilty of the bombings, then he committed a heinous crime for which there are severe penalties. However, while his guilt is still in question, Tsarnaev is entitled to a team of lawyers that will stand firm in defense of his life and in defense of the rule of law. There are four people doing just that: Miriam Conrad, Judy Clarke, William Fick, and Timothy Watkins.

Miriam Conrad, the head of the federal public defender's office in Boston, is one of the nation’s most respected public defenders. A Massachusetts native and Harvard Law School graduate, Conrad has spent more than two decades as a federal public defender, representing convicted terrorists like Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber,” and Rezwan Ferdaus, a Muslim-American who received a 17-year sentence for plotting to attack the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol using remote-controlled model planes armed with explosives. 

Judy Clarke was added to the defense team in April when Conrad filed a motion requesting that the court provide the defense with additional expertise in death penalty cases. The request was in accordance with a federal law that stipulates that at least one counsel representing a defendant in a capital case should be “learned in the law applicable to capital cases.” Clarke has helped a number of infamous defendants avoid death sentences, including the "Unabomber," Theodore Kaczynski, Eric Rudolph, the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics bomber, and most recently, Tucson shooter Jared Loughner.

Over a legal career of more than 30 years, Clarke has become perhaps the best-known federal public defender in the country, with a reputation for taking on cases that often begin with emotional calls for the death penalty — cases like Tsarnaev’s. According to a Washington Post–ABC News poll, a large majority of American citizens (70%) support the death penalty for the 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev if he is convicted. 

Other members of the federal public defense team include William W. Fick, who represented Tsarnaev at his bedside hearing, and Timothy Watkins, who, according to the Massachusetts State Court website, has served as an assistant federal defender of the District of Massachusetts since 1999.

All four defense lawyers are a part of an American history that is filled with those who were proud to defend accused terrorists and enemies of the state, because in doing so they were upholding the values the country was built upon. John Adams, a founding father and the second president of the United States, defended the British soldiers accused of killing innocent American civilians during the Boston Massacre. He said of his defense: “The Part I took in Defence of Cptn. Preston and the Soldiers, procured me Anxiety, and Obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterred Actions of my whole life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country.”