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Thoughts about the obstruction-of-justice conviction in Boston

26 july 2014, 14:18
0

A Boston jury’s conviction of 20-year-old Azamat Tazhayakov on charges of obstructing an investigation into the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013 has left some Kazakhs in disbelief.

A number of my Kazakh friends say Tazhayakov and his University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth roommate, 20-year-old Dias Kadyrbayev, who is facing an obstruction trial in September, didn’t do anything.

“They were just stupid young guys who didn’t think,” said a Kazakh friend who didn’t want me to use his name in this article.

The federal prosecutors in Boston who brought the charges against the roommates see it differently.

In their view, the Kazakhs tried to help the Dagestan-born brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the suspects in the bombings, get away with murder.

Tamerlan died in a shootout with police a few days after the bombings. Dzhokhar, who was wounded in the shootout, will be tried for murder in November. He faces the death penalty if convicted.

Prosecutors acknowledged that neither Tazhayakov nor Kadyrbayev was involved in the bombings, which killed three people and injured more than 260 on April 15, 2013.

In fact, the roommates didn’t know their friends the Tsarnaevs were planning a terrorist attack, prosecutors conceded.

Photo courtesy of vk.com

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev with Azamat Tazhayakov and Dias Kadyrbayev. Photo courtesy of vk.com

Tazhayakov was convicted of obstructing justice for agreeing to Kadyrbayev’s plan to dispose of a backpack belonging to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

The backpack contained fireworks whose explosive powder had been removed to make the pressure-cooker bombs used in the marathon attacks, prosecutors maintained.

Law enforcement officers found the backpack, which is expected to be an important piece of evidence in Tsarnaev’s trial, in a landfill. Kadyrbayev had thrown the backpack in a dumpster that city trash collectors emptied into the landfill.

Tazhayakov’s defense attorneys said after the trial that they thought they had a chance to get him off.

That’s because he didn’t help Kadyrbayev dispose of the backpack.

The jury found Tazhayakov guilty anyway – for simply going along with Kadyrbayev’s plan to get rid of the backpack.

A key implication of the conviction is that if Tazhayakov had wanted to save himself, he should have told his roommate: “I don’t want anything to do with this – you’re on your own.”

In fact, the American judicial system might have expected him to do even more to avoid charges: Notify law enforcement of the backpack.

One of the arguments that Tazhayakov’s defense team made was that he shouldn’t be convicted because culture played a role in how he behaved the day he realized the Tsarnaevs might have committed the bombings.

One thing I’ve learned in my eight years in Kazakhstan is there’s an unwritten code that you don’t rat on a friend. This cultural predilection may have been a factor in Tazhayakov failing to notify police about the backpack.

I predicted a year ago, when the charges were brought against Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev, that both would be convicted and both would see prison time.

Barring something unforeseen, the jury that tries Kadyrbayev will convict him, too, because the case against him is stronger than it was against Tazhayakov.

Kadyrbayev was the one who actually threw the backpack in the dumpster. Tazhayakov just agreed to it.

Dias Kadyrbayev and Azamat Tazhayakov. Photo©REUTERS

Dias Kadyrbayev and Azamat Tazhayakov. Photo©REUTERS

Tazhayakov’s lawyer plans to appeal, as Kadyrbayev’s probably will if he’s convicted, but I don’t see grounds for the trial outcomes being reversed.

Another Kazakh friend of mine, who also didn’t want his name used in this article, said after Tazhayakov’s conviction: “Well, maybe they’ll just get probation and not go to prison.”

Anything is possible in a court case, but probation is unrealistic in this situation.

In these days when terrorism is rampant, anyone convicted of a terrorism-related offense in any country is almost certain to get prison time. That’s just the way the world works now.

Tazhayakov faces 25 years when he’s sentenced in October. I expect him to get three to five years, since it was his first offense, and Kadyrbayev one or two years more.

I’m sad about that because I agree with many of my Kazakh friends that these young men just didn’t think through the implications of what they were doing.

Let me close this column by bringing up a footnote in the Tazhayakov case that I believe is going to figure in more and more American criminal trials: using suspects’ computer searches as evidence against them.

Investigators seized Tazhayakov’s computer to learn what Internet searches he’d conducted. They discovered that on April 18, 2013, the day Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev learned police were seeking the Tsarnaev brothers, Tazhayakov made a number of searches about the Boston bombings.

April 18, 2013, was also the day that Kadyrbayev disposed of the backpack.

The computer searches weren’t a “make or break” factor in the Tazhayakov trial – there was plenty of other evidence -- but they helped the prosecution’s case.

Azamat Tazhayakov. Photo courtesy of vk.com

Azamat Tazhayakov. Photo courtesy of vk.com

Records of computer searches have become pivotal pieces of evidence in some American court cases, however.

They will play a critical role, for example, in a murder case that prosecutors in the state of Georgia have brought against a man whose 3-year-old son died in a hot car.

Justin Harris, who lived in the Atlanta area, told police that the death of his son Cooper was an accident. He said he left Cooper in the car after forgetting to take him to a day-care center before going to work.

Police initially thought it might be an accident, too. But evidence it was homicide began surfacing quickly.

A particularly damning piece of evidence was computer searches Harris made before Cooper’s death. The topics included “child deaths inside vehicles” and how hot does it need to be for a child to die inside a car.

I’m not trying to draw parallels between the Boston bombing obstruction cases and the horrendous case of a 3-year-old’s death.

I’m just pointing out that the computer-search evidence police used in the Tazhayakov case is going to figure more and more in American criminal cases. And later on, I suspect, in other countries as well.

 


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