Boston Bombing Suspect Could Face The Death Penalty

Carrie Johnson talks to Audie Cornish about the charges against Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. He was charged on Monday with using a weapon of mass destruction that killed three people and injured more than 200 at the Boston Marathon. He could be eligible for the death penalty.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

One week after bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, authorities have filed criminal charges against their prime suspect. Federal prosecutors accuse 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev of using a weapon of mass destruction and destroying property, crimes that resulted in three deaths. Tsarnaev has been unable to speak, but he's reportedly writing down answers to questions from investigators.

With us to talk about the next steps in the case is NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. And, Carrie, to start, tell us a little bit more about the charges he's actually facing.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Audie, this is an initial charging document, and it includes two charges for now: the use of weapons of mass destruction and malicious destruction of property resulting in death. The Justice Department still could add lots of weapons charges since we believe that neither brother had a permit to carry any firearm in the state of Massachusetts. There are also no charges as yet for the death of the MIT officer. And also important to note, the state of Massachusetts itself could charge this gentleman.

CORNISH: And obviously it looks like authorities have a lot of evidence, but what evidence is the prosecution actually pointing to to back up these charges?

JOHNSON: We're in early phases here, but the criminal complaint relies pretty heavily on video surveillance footage. Tsarnaev was one of the only people who didn't respond to the first explosion, according to the FBI. Instead, they have some pictures of him allegedly fiddling with his cellphone, walking away and the second blast happening a short time later in front of the Forum Restaurant.

They also have something which includes a statement from the man who was allegedly carjacked by the brothers. One of the men - it appears to be the older brother, who's now dead - said something to the effect of did you hear about the Boston explosion? I did that.

And finally, in a search of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's dorm room at the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth, FBI agents said they found BBs and a white hat matching the white cap shown in the surveillance footage.

CORNISH: Carrie, one thing a lot of people have remarked on is that the police did not reportedly read Tsarnaev his Miranda rights when he was initially taken in. Now, the attorney general said that they invoked a public safety exception under the law. What exactly does that mean, and what does that mean for this case going forward?

JOHNSON: OK. So, Audie, the Miranda decision is a very famous Supreme Court decision dating back decades and decades, and what it essentially says is people need not incriminate themselves. Police need to read people their warnings, the right to remain silent, all the things you remember from "Law & Order." And if those rights are not read, that information cannot be used against the suspect in court.

What the Justice Department invoked here is something called the public safety exception to Miranda. If there is, for instance, a ticking bomb or other conspirators out there, they want to get that kind of intelligence, and they have some period of time - probably not more than two days - in which to extract this kind of information and then go back and read the suspect his or her Miranda rights.

In this case, it's not entirely clear that they need self-incriminating statements from Dzhokhar in part because of the strength of the evidence in that video footage we talked about, possible fingerprints and other forensics and the statement from the carjacking victim in particular.

CORNISH: So what happens next?

JOHNSON: Authorities say they're still investigating. They're gathering a lot of evidence still at crime scenes, processing forensics, trying to trace these brothers' movements online and physically. Also, under the WMD charge, Dzhokhar could be eligible for the death penalty. That's a really long process which involves a special committee at the Justice Department and approval from the attorney general himself. Also, he'll get a public defender, and it could take quite a long time for him to actually get to trial.

CORNISH: That's NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thank you.

JOHNSON: You're welcome.

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