A jury this week convicted Dzhokhar Tsarnaev for his role in the Boston Marathon, nearly two years to the day after he and his brother set off a bomb that killed three people and injured 260 more. Tsarnaev faced 30 criminal counts and was found guilty on each of them.
But in the interest of accountability, it’s worth reflecting on the political leaders who pushed for a very different legal process.
As regular readers may recall, after Tsarnaev was captured, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) urged the Obama administration to treat the suspect as an “enemy combatant.” Rachel noted on the show this week that their plan was to deny him Miranda warnings and prevent the appointment of defense counsel.
The case involved an American citizen, captured on American soil, accused of committing a crime in America. The Republican senators, however, said these were irrelevant details. They were joined soon after by Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.).
Michael Tomasky explained yesterday how very wrong they were.
Their argument was that holding Tsarnaev as a combatant for a certain period of time would allow the government to ascertain things like whether he had any al Qaeda connections. Graham said at the time that being able to question Tsarnaev without a defense lawyer present was his whole point. That might sound reasonable, if it weren’t for, you know, the Constitution.
Republicans said an “enemy combatant” designation was necessary for intelligence purposes and to ensure justice. The Obama administration ignored the GOP demands. Two years later, it’s the president’s approach that’s vindicated.
Tomasky added, “It took a week less than two years, an impressively brisk time window, for federal prosecutors in Massachusetts to deliver justice to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and the jury needed just 11 hours to deliberate. We didn’t waterboard him or send him to Gitmo, his jailers didn’t make him strip naked and get down on all fours while they led him around on a leash; and still, miraculously, despite these failures of our resolve, the people of the United States got a conviction.”
The reference to “failures” was, of course, sarcasm.
Remember, this keeps happening. The Obama administration, to the great consternation of the McCains and Grahams of the world, continues to try terrorist suspects in civilian Article III courts, and continues to secure convictions while sticking to the American system of justice.
As we discussed last year, following another successful terrorist trial, the partisan argument, such as it is, continues to be ridiculous. According to a wide variety of Republicans, these trials should never happen. The United States may have an established and effective criminal justice system that has tried and convicted hundreds of terrorists, and we may also have an established and effective system of federal penitentiaries from which no terrorist has ever escaped, but right around January 2009, GOP lawmakers decided criminal trials for terrorist suspects were inherently outrageous. (Plenty of nervous Democrats, fearful of being labeled “weak on terror,” went along.)
Republicans have instead demanded military commissions, which tend to be an ineffective setting for trying suspected terrorists. Every modern presidential administration has relied on civilian courts for terrorist trials – a decision backed by the Pentagon, Justice Department, and intelligence agencies – but GOP officials have nevertheless insisted that Article III trials are the wrong way to go.
This week offered yet another powerful piece of evidence that the Republican argument is wrong. The Tsarnaev case showed the American justice system working exactly as it was designed to work: a suspect was represented by counsel; a jury was presented with evidence; the accused received a fair trial in a civilian court; and he was convicted.
Will McCain and Graham face any pressure to explain their misguided suggestions? I rather doubt it. In fact, it seems far more likely the Beltway will continue to look to the hawks as voices of wisdom on matters of national security – their track records notwithstanding.