Prosecutors told a Boston federal judge on Tuesday that they could put accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on trial next fall, while defense lawyers said they need much more time for discovery and to possibly seek a new venue.
During a 90-minute, wide-ranging motion hearing and status conference, government lawyers pressed the court to set deadlines. They also fended off arguments that jailhouse rules unduly restrict Tsarnaev’s lawyers and that government responses to discovery requests were inadequate.
Tsarnaev potentially faces the death penalty for allegedly setting off two bombs near the race finish line on April 15 with his late brother, Tamerlan. He pleaded not guilty to 30 charges in July.
District of Massachusetts Judge George O’Toole Jr. gave the government until Jan. 31 to notify the court of Attorney General Eric Holder Jr.’s decision about whether he’ll seek the death penalty. He gave the defense until Feb. 28 to make either or both of two key filings: a motion to dismiss and a motion to change venue.
The government expects a 90-day trial on the merits and a 60-day sentencing phase, assuming a half-day schedule.
Timothy Watkins, an assistant federal public defender for the District of Massachusetts, said a trial by fall 2014 would be “very, very quick” for any case in the district and a “rocket schedule” for a case of this magnitude. “It would be difficult for either side to comply with [that] and comply with all their obligations,” he said.
The hearing also covered the so-called “special administrative measures” imposed to control access to the accused. Only lawyers, not their staff members, may disseminate to third parties any information about Tsarnaev’s communications. The rules also allow pre-cleared paralegals to meet alone with Tsarnaev, but not defense investigators or interpreters. In addition, prison officials can screen materials that lawyers bring when visiting Tsarnaev, instead of just ensuring that they are legal papers.
Arguing for the government on that issue, assistant U.S. attorney Nadine Pellegrini acknowledged that the rules place “somewhat of a burden—not a restriction on the defense’s ability to consult with the client, but a burden to determine that in fact what is disseminated to third parties is, in fact, related to the defense.”
After questioning from O’Toole about third parties who work hand-in-hand with the legal team, Pellegrini said the government is concerned about independent contractors including investigators.
O’Toole took the matter under advisement but said he’s considering whether both sides should agree on two lists of names: people with access to Tsarnaev and people who can disseminate information about the case. “Maybe you could just agree on people,” O’Toole said.
Of the discovery issue, Tsarnaev’s lawyers said they’re reviewing 100,000 pages of paper discovery but that the government is still holding back. Federal public defender for the District of Massachusetts Miriam Conrad cited immigration files for members of Tsarnaev’s nuclear family as one example.
The government could freely turn over what it has, but the defense probably would have to launch a Freedom of Information Act case to get that information, she said. “That seems to be a very poor use of judicial resources, especially in this limited budget time.”
Assistant U.S. attorney William Weinreb insisted: “We have not withheld any favorable material information from them and we do not intend to.”
Sheri Qualters can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.