OP-ED: To Defend a Terrorist: Reflections on Reid, Tsarnaev & How I Got from There to Here

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Tamar Birckhead new head shotIn recent weeks, I’ve been occupied with putting myself out there (via print, radio & cable news) to share the message that even those charged with the most heinous offenses are still human beings, that we are each more than the very worst thing we have done, and that execution is morally wrong.

In my last life, I worked as a federal public defender in Boston and had the occasion to represent Richard Reid, the failed, or would-be, shoe-bomber. This wasn’t a role I sought out, and in fact, when the case was initially assigned to me, I felt apprehensive about taking it on. It so happened, however, that I was “on call” during the last week of December 2001, meaning that any new cases appointed to the office were mine; so, when Reid’s American Airlines flight from Miami to Paris was diverted to Boston’s Logan Airport and he was arrested and charged with acts of terrorism, I knew that this 28-year-old bin Laden adherent of British and Jamaican descent would become my client.

The timing was not at all ideal — as though there are ever ideal conditions under which to take on a case/client like this one. My husband was in graduate school, we had an 18 month old daughter, and I was five months pregnant with our second child.  In other words, not much “work-life balance” or “leaning in” was happening for me right then. We lived on the top floor of a Dorchester triple decker (ask someone from Boston to explain), with a wanna-be white rapper from the suburbs, his cranky girlfriend and three snarling pit bulls below us. Needless to say, I was regularly giving people on the T (Boston’s subway) the evil eye when they wouldn’t make room for me on the bench, as my belly was rapidly expanding and my patience was wearing thin.

Much of my representation of Reid remains somewhat of a blur, coming back in sharp flashes of memories — incessant calls from the press, countless boxes of discovery from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, special security clearances and long trips to MCI-Plymouth to see Richard. Also, it was winter in Boston, and it was cold. Very cold.

I recall fraught meetings with Richard’s mother, Leslie Hughes, a polite, soft-spoken English woman who worked as a librarian, then remarried and had a second son with a local town planner. She suggested that Richard had first become estranged and angry at age 11 after his parents’ divorce and her remarriage, as he never fit in with the “new” family configuration — he withdrew from his step-father and didn’t bond with his half-brother.

At 16, Richard dropped out of school and drifted about in search of another community. He ended up in jail — as had his father — and converted to Islam, eventually finding the London mosque led by an anti-American cleric known for his extremist views and purported ties to al Qaeda. Trips followed to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

As we geared up for a trial, learning about plastic explosives, litigating various pretrial motions, strategizing and working with experts, it became clear that Richard did not want to engage in any meaningful way with the American criminal justice system, which he considered to be illegitimate and a sham. He wanted merely to go to court and “admit what [he] had done.” And so, on Jan. 31, 2003, he did just that.

Richard Reid is now serving a life sentence at the notorious “supermax” prison in Florence, Colo. As I am no longer a federal public defender, I have had no contact with him since 2004. I do think of Richard and the case, however, whenever I go through airport security and remove my shoes — which may be his only concrete legacy.

Fast forward 12 years and I’m the mother of two middle schoolers, living in balmy North Carolina and teaching eager law students the nuts and bolts of representing poor people charged with crimes. There are explosions set off during the Boston Marathon, and I watch in horror as three spectators are killed and 261 are grievously maimed. I lived in the Boston area for 15 years (everywhere from Somerville and Cambridge to Jamaica Plain and Newton) and still have close friends and former colleagues there; I frantically send out texts and emails, hoping that they are safe.

Then a reporter Googles “lawyers for terrorists” and my name comes up. He calls, and I happen to answer the phone in my office at the law school. He wants to know what it was like to represent Reid and to work with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s Boston federal defender, Miriam Conrad, and he poses the oft-asked question, how can you defend those people …?

I talk and I listen, as I patiently try to explain what motivates me — and perhaps others — to do this work. I think of 19 year old Dzhokhar, a college sophomore and Russian immigrant, who likely helped his older brother bring about the destruction and loss of life resulting from the bombings in Boston. He is young, with a still-developing brain. He has friends, a roommate, a Twitter account and many of the other trappings of ordinary kids in America. His brother is dead, his parents remain in Russia, and he is held at the federal medical center at Ft. Devens, recovering from gunshot wounds to his throat. If Dzhokhar escapes execution, he will likely spend the remainder of his life, 70 or more years, in federal prison. Perhaps he will be housed with Reid at the supermax.

I think of the victims — particularly 8-year-old Richard Martin and his bright, wide-eyed expression that represents nothing short of pure innocence. I think of his parents and the devastation from which they will never, ever recover.

In the weeks and months (and perhaps years) to follow, we will search for answers — why did the Tsarnaevs do it? What did they hope to accomplish? What is a just penalty for a 19 year old who has committed such atrocities? Attorneys Miriam Conrad, Judy Clarke and their colleagues will do yeoman’s service to save Dzhokhar’s life. They will review discovery, file motions, interview witnesses, negotiate with the government and appear in court. They will try to make a connection with their client, form a bond, and help him achieve the best possible resolution of the case.

It is a grueling, seemingly thankless task, but it is also a privilege to serve the role of defender — particularly that of public defender. For some of us it is a calling, a mission. We see the humanity in our clients, regardless of what they have done, and we do all we can to reveal that humanity to everyone else.

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