As prosecutors weighed charges in the Boston Marathon bombings, the same laws used successfully in deadly terrorist acts such as the Oklahoma City bombing and the first World Trade Center attack were at the top of their list.
Terrorism cases brought over the past 20 years show there are a number of federal statutes that can be applied, including conspiracy to use or actual use of a weapon of mass destruction, which is punishable by death. Today, the Justice Department chose that very law to charge Dzhokar Tsarnaev in the attack.
The 19 year-old is being held in a Boston hospital where he is in serious condition after being taken into custody April 19. In the April 15 bombing, three people were killed and more than 170 injured by explosions seconds apart near the finish line.
The suspect’s elder brother, Tamerlan, 26, was later killed in a confrontation with police. The two men were pursued as part of a sprawling four-day manhunt, during which one police officer was killed and another wounded in exchanges of gunfire.
Even in cases matching the brutality of the Boston bombings and their aftermath, there is a mixed record of those prosecuted under federal terror statutes when it comes to obtaining a sentence of life, or death. The one consistent thread over the years, however, has been that most cases result in convictions.
Timothy McVeigh, accused in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, was found guilty of 11 crimes, including conspiracy and the use of a weapon of mass destruction for detonating a bomb outside a federal building that killed 168 people and injured more than 800.
Ramzi Yousef, who assembled a team of colleagues and the supplies to build a 1,200-pound bomb used in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, was convicted of conspiracy and other terrorism charges for the attack which at the time was the worst terrorist incident ever on U.S. soil.
McVeigh was executed, while Yousef was sentenced to life plus 240 years in prison for the bombing, which killed six and injured more than 1,000. His sentence also stemmed from his role in a separate plot to bomb more than a dozen U.S. jetliners over the Pacific during the same day.
Yousef is serving his sentence in the U.S. government’s Administrative Maximum facility in Florence, Colorado, the same facility that houses McVeigh’s co-conspirator, Terry Nichols, who is also serving a life term.
Faisal Shahzad, accused of a foiled plot to blow up his Nissan Pathfinder in New York’s Times Square on May 1, 2010, was charged with conspiracy to detonate an improvised explosive and incendiary device; attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction; using a destructive device in connection with an attempted crime of violence and possession and use of a firearm, as well as attempted act of terrorism transcending national boundaries.
Shahzad, a former financial analyst, would later plead guilty and admit to receiving training and funding from the Pakistan Taliban. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Adis Medunjanin, charged in a conspiracy to detonate bombs in New York City subways, was indicted on a weapon of mass destruction count and other terrorism charges. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
The blasts near Boston’s Copley Square occurred as thousands of marathon runners were finishing the race. Among the dead was an 8-year-old from the Dorchester neighborhood, Martin Richard. The family of Krystle Campbell of Medford, Massachusetts, identified the 29-year-old as another person who died in the blast. The third person, Lu Lingzi, was a graduate student at Boston University, the school said.
Of the injured, many were hospitalized with lower-extremity wounds from bombs laden with pellets and nail-like shrapnel. At least 11 people underwent amputations, hospital officials said.
Following his capture, Tsarnaev was hospitalized at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center with gunshot wounds suffered as he battled police, authorities said. He remains in serious condition, the FBI said yesterday.
Authorities said they believe the two bombing suspects were acting alone and haven’t found connections to any groups or other suspects, said a person briefed on the investigation who asked not to be identified because it is a continuing probe.
The brothers are ethnic Chechens, said their uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, who lives in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was an amateur boxer and a Muslim who trained at a gym in the Allston section of Brighton and told friends, “I’m very religious,” according to an account by Johannes Hirn, a freelance photographer who profiled him.
Federal death penalty prosecutions, unlike many state cases, require a rigorous vetting at the highest levels of the Justice Department -- a months-long process that often results in a decision to seek only a life sentence.
Any cases that include potential capital punishment crimes will be reviewed by local federal prosecutors and eventually by the U.S. attorney general and his deputies. They also hear from defense lawyers before making the final determination to seek death, said Morris Fodeman, a former federal prosecutor who persuaded a Brooklyn, New York, jury to vote to execute Ronell Wilson, a New York man convicted of killing a New York City police detective.
Additionally, all death penalty cases require a second trial, a so-called penalty phase, where jurors are asked to decide on whether a convicted defendant deserves life in prison or death, by weighing mitigating and aggravating factors.
On April 19, Boston U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz declined to say after the capture of Tsarnaev whether she would seek the death penalty, alluding to the complex process by which U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder makes the final decision.
Another factor in such a decision is often whether a defendant decides to plead guilty rather than force a trial.
Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, a former University of California at Berkeley math professor, used mail bombs to kill three people and injure 23 from 1978 and 1995 in a terror campaign against technology. He pleaded guilty in 1998 and is serving a life sentence.
And in the attack that perhaps bears the most similarity to the Boston bombing, on an early July morning in 1996, a backpack with three pipe bombs encircled by nails exploded in Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park during the Olympics. That terrorist act killed one person and injured more than 100.
Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation searched the home of the security guard who discovered the bomb moments before the blast. Investigators later tied the attack to Eric Rudolph through an analysis of bomb elements, including an alarm clock and steel plate. Rudolph, who was arrested in 2003, pleaded guilty.
He too is serving a life term, alongside Yousef, Nichols and Kaczynski.