Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, until recently under intense attack for her office’s aggressive prosecution of the late Internet activist Aaron Swartz, is being hailed for her toughness now that she’s in charge of the potential federal death penalty case against the surviving Boston Marathon bombing suspect.
“I hope that the U.S. attorney, Carmen Ortiz, takes him on the federal side and throws the book at him,” Boston Mayor Tom Menino said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday.
Ortiz has been the subject of several profiles recently praising her experience, which includes 12 years as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Boston before she was tapped in 2009 to run the office there.
“The criticism lately has been that they’ve over-charged some people and been overly harsh,” Peter Elikann, a Boston defense attorney, said in a recent interview with Reuters. Elikann went on to observe that “no one is going to accuse any prosecutor of making too big a deal out of this case.”
That would seem to be a safe statement, considering that the April 15 bombing killed three people and wounded more than 280 others, many of whom lost legs, as it left blood on the street and horrified and infuriated millions of Americans.
In the days since one suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed in a shootout with police and his wounded brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, was captured, there have been further unsettling developments: three college students have been accused of hampering the investigation, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has told interrogators that he and his 26-year-old brother were actually planning a Fourth of July strike but decided to act earlier in Boston because their homemade bombs were completed faster than they had anticipated (see report in The New York Times).
The surviving Tsarnaev brother is charged with using a weapon of mass destruction (a pressure cooker turned into a bomb), a federal charge that could subject him to the death penalty. There is no state death penalty in Massachusetts, and polls have shown a strong public sentiment for imposing the ultimate punishment on whoever is convicted of carrying out the Marathon attack.
All of which would seem to make Carmen Ortiz the right person in the right place at the right moment in history as she helps to lead the Boston investigation, with pledges of help and cooperation from President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder.
So for now, at least, the suicide Swartz, whom Ortiz was accused in some quarters of prosecuting over-aggressively, seems to have faded from public consciousness. (Ortiz expressed regret over Swartz’s death but insisted that her office acted appropriately.)
Harvey Silverglate, a Cambridge, Mass., civil rights lawyer, told Reuters he thought Ortiz’s prominent role is “a move to enhance her public credibility.” But another question that begs to be asked is why wouldn’t the chief federal prosecutor in Boston have a prominent role in the bombing investigation?
Prosecutors control their agendas up to a point, and other cases are forced on them, like the Boston bombing. In any event, Silverglate acknowledged, if grudgingly, that “she is a good public face for the tough response. She’s perfect for that.”