Some reflections on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s apology

Dzhokhar_Tsarnaev_(crop)
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

It’s impossible to live in the Boston area and not have an opinion about Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s apology, which he delivered in federal court Wednesday as he was formally sentenced to death. For what it’s worth, here’s mine.

I think he was sincere — up to a point. I’m sure he sincerely wishes he didn’t find himself in this predicament, and he would have to be inhuman not to be affected by the victims’ stories that he heard during his trial. He is not inhuman, though he committed inhuman acts.

More than anything, though, I was struck by his aggrandizement and narcissism. He very much wants to impress us with his religious piety. Genuine humility and remorse? Not at the top of his agenda. I’ve heard a number of people say he apologized only because his lawyers pushed him into it. That may be true, but they couldn’t have been very happy with his smug self-regard — or with his thanks to them and others for making his life behind bars so “very easy.”

I was also struck by Kevin Cullen’s observation in The Boston Globe that Tsarnaev spoke with “an affected accent,” which suggests that he remains deeply under the influence of the jihadist propaganda on which he and his brother, Tamerlan, gorged themselves before carrying out their unspeakably evil mission. (And for the umpteenth time: Why couldn’t we see and hear Tsarnaev for ourselves?)

In the years to come, I hope Tsarnaev comes to a more genuine sense of repentance. And though it’s only natural that we focus on what motivated Tsarnaev to act as he did, we should never forget that the people who truly matter are Martin Richard, Krystle Campbell, Lingzi Lu and Sean Collier, as well as their friends, families and those who were injured.

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The Tsarnaev jury and the death penalty

Clockwise from top left: Boston Marathon bombing  victims Krystle Campbell, Martin Richard, Lingzi Lu and shooting victim Sean Collier.
Clockwise from top left: Boston Marathon bombing victims Krystle Campbell, Martin Richard and Lingzi Lu, and MIT police officer Sean Collier, who was murdered in the aftermath of the attack.

The jurors in the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev trial had an unimaginably difficult job. They deserve our gratitude. The evidence and the sheer depravity of Tsarnaev’s crimes certainly support the death penalty, though I remain adamant in my opposition to it.

But let’s not forget that in a state without the death penalty, and in which polls showed a majority favored life in prison for Tsarnaev, prospective jurors who opposed capital punishment were barred from serving.

No, you don’t have to explain to me why. Allowing a death-penalty opponent onto the jury would have guaranteed a life sentence since there would be no possibility for a unanimous vote for death. But isn’t that just one more argument in favor of abolishing capital punishment?

More details on the Globe’s tweaked-up opinion section

The Boston Globe’s interim editorial-page editor, Ellen Clegg, wasn’t ready to go public about this when we spoke last week. But this week the paper announced a project called “Opinion Reel,” which will run “short documentaries with a point of view” submitted by “local professionals, students, and smartphone auteurs.”

“You could even be Ken Burns and we’ll take a look,” Clegg says.

It’s an intriguing idea, and it will be interesting to see what gets posted. I’ve already made sure our journalism students at Northeastern know about it.

• As I wrote last week, the redesign of the opinion pages in print can’t be looked at in isolation. Instead, the two-page print spread should be seen as kind of a “best of” taken from the larger online opinion section. I’ve heard several people say they were afraid the pages were being dumbed down, a concern that makes sense only if you’re still focused on print. (People: It’s 2015.)

Case in point: On Wednesday, as the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev death-penalty case was being turned over to the jury, the Globe posted a commentary by Boston College Law School professor Kari Hong arguing that the time has come to bring back firing squads. Her piece does not appear in the print edition.

As Mark Twain said of Wagner’s music, Hong’s essay is better than it sounds. Hong, an opponent of capital punishment who’s represented clients on death row, makes a strong case that the firing squad would be more humane than lethal injection.

“If jurors had to choose between giving someone life in prison — without the possibility of parole — or putting them in front of a firing squad,” she concludes, “I have no doubt that many would opt for the former.”

Don’t take away Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s chance to repent

If Dzhokhar Tsarnaev doesn’t get the death penalty, he’ll be sentenced to a prison where he’s pretty much guaranteed to go insane, David Abel reports in The Boston Globe.

Tsarnaev deserves no luxuries and no special treatment. But he does deserve to be treated humanely, even though he treated his victims with wanton cruelty. Because that’s who we are — or should be.

We used to call prisons penitentiaries. Sometimes prisoners come to understand the horror of their crimes and undergo conversion experiences. That doesn’t mean Tsarnaev should ever be let out of prison — of course he shouldn’t. But we should not take away his chance to repent.

Where Boston’s papers stand on death for Tsarnaev

The Boston Globe today offers some powerful arguments against executing convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Metro columnists Kevin Cullen and Yvonne Abraham weigh in, as do the paper’s editorial page, civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate and retired federal judge Nancy Gertner. (Columnist Jeff Jacoby has previously written in favor of death for Tsarnaev.)

Over at the Boston Herald, the message is mixed. In favor of the death penalty are columnist Adriana Cohen and editorial-page editor Rachelle Cohen. The lead editorial calls for the death penalty as well. Columnist Joe Fitzgerald is against capital punishment for Tsarnaev. Former mayor Ray Flynn offers a maybe, writing that he’s against the death penalty but would respect the wishes of the victims’ families.

Let Dzhokhar Tsarnaev fade away in prison

Martin Richard
Martin Richard

Now the real Boston Marathon trial can begin.

A federal jury’s decision to convict Dzhokhar Tsarnaev of 30 charges related to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings was the most anticlimactic of anticlimaxes. The 21-year-old’s lawyers admitted from the beginning that their client had participated in the horrific terrorist attack, which both scarred and strengthened this city.

The outcome of this first phase may have been preordained, but nearly two years after the bombing, the trial has held Boston and the region in thrall — more so than I might have imagined. The case regularly lands on the front pages of our two daily newspapers, the Globe and the Herald, and often leads the local television newscasts. The Twitter feeds of reporters covering the trial are avidly followed.

We haven’t learned much new, although harrowing details about the deaths of the Tsarnaev brothers’ four victims have come out. More than anything, many people find something cathartic in seeing the seemingly insolent, unrepentant Tsarnaev being brought to justice.

The only issue to be decided is whether Tsarnaev should be executed. Which is why the second phase of his trial is the one that really matters. Was Tsarnaev so thoroughly under the sway of his radicalized older brother, Tamerlan, that he should be spared lethal injection? Or had this seemingly typical teenager transformed himself into a hardened jihadist who obsessed over al Qaeda propaganda such as the article “Make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom”?

What kind of justice should Tsarnaev receive? There is no death penalty in Massachusetts, and in September 2013, according to a Globe poll, 57% of respondents supported life in prison for Tsarnaev; just 33% said he should be executed.

By moving the case into federal court, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made it likely that Tsarnaev would receive the death penalty. Keep in mind that no members of the jury were deemed eligible to serve unless they stated beforehand that they were willing to consider putting Tsarnaev to death.

But imagine a different scenario in which Tsarnaev had been allowed to plead guilty in return for a life sentence. He would have been denied the public stage he has been granted; although he has not testified (so far), his terrorist actions have been replayed over and over again for people to see the world over.

The 2015 Boston Marathon will take place in less than two weeks, on Monday, April 20. Thousands of runners will clog the 26.2-mile route, and tens of thousands will cheer them on — as they did last year, proving to the world that we will not be intimidated. And Tsarnaev’s lawyers will still be fighting for their client’s life.

It is a natural if disturbing reaction to events like this that it’s easier to remember the names of the perpetrators than of their victims. But Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a loser and a nobody. He should be allowed to fade away into the obscurity of a maximum-security prison cell. The people who deserve to be remembered are those he and his brother killed on Marathon Day — Martin Richard, Krystle Campbell and Lingzi Lu — and Sean Collier, the MIT police officer they executed in cold blood. It is they who should live on in our collective memories.

Personal photo by Lucia Brawley.

Originally published at CNN Opinion.

Muzzling the press, from Tsarnaev to Delauter

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The Frederick News-Post won the Internet Tuesday with a hilariously defiant editorial.

Faced with a threat by a city council member named Kirby Delauter to sue if his name was published without his permission, the Maryland newspaper responded with a piece headlined “Kirby Delauter, Kirby Delauter, Kirby Delauter” that repeated his name nearly 50 times and included his photo. And if that didn’t make the point sufficiently, the first letter of each paragraph spelled out “K-I-R-B-Y-D-E-L-A-U-T-E-R.”

Delauter’s ludicrous assault on the First Amendment was easily batted away. But not all matters involving freedom of speech and of the press are as amusing or as trivial. You need look no further than the Moakley Federal Courthouse in Boston, where the trial of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is about to begin without the benefit of television cameras inside the courtroom.

Tsarnaev may be sentenced to die on our behalf — yet we are being denied the right to watch the justice system at work, a crucial check on the awesome power of government. Last year a WGBH News Muzzle Award was bestowed upon U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts for his opposition to cameras in federal courtrooms. Unfortunately, the situation seems unlikely to change anytime soon.

At least the ban on courtroom cameras does not explicitly violate the First Amendment. The same cannot be said of Maine District Court Judge Jeffrey Moskowitz, who on Monday ruled that the news media were prohibited from reporting anything said in court by the defendant in a domestic-violence case, a criminal defense lawyer named Anthony Sineni. Reporting on witness testimony was prohibited as well.

The Portland Press Herald published this article in defiance of the gag order, and reporter Scott Dolan writes that Moskowitz has called a hearing for later today — possibly to express his displeasure over the Press Herald’s actions, or possibly to acknowledge that he got it wrong.

The Supreme Court has ruled that nearly all gag orders such as Moskowitz’s are unconstitutional. “There is a 100 percent chance this order is unlawful,” said Press Herald lawyer Sigmund Schutz, who was quoted in a blog post by Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. “There is no question that the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts have been very clear, what occurs or is said in the court is a matter of public record.”

A different sort of gag order is preventing us from learning everything we might know about the death of Michael Brown, the black unarmed teenager who was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in Ferguson, Missouri, earlier this year. Whether Wilson’s actions were justified or not, the incident helped expose the racial divide in Ferguson and sparked protests nationwide.

Now it turns out that a member of the grand jury that chose not to indict Wilson wants to speak, but is prohibited from doing so by a Missouri law that requires grand jurors to remain silent. The grand juror has filed suit against St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch to be allowed to discuss the case.

Though it’s not clear what the grand juror has to say, a report by Chris McDaniel of St. Louis Public Radio offers some hints. Quoting from the lawsuit, McDaniel writes: “In [the grand juror]’s view, the current information available about the grand jurors’ views is not entirely accurate — especially the implication that all grand jurors believed that there was no support for any charges.” (McDaniel notes that grand jury decisions need not be unanimous.)

Though it is not unusual for grand jury members to be prohibited from speaking, the ACLU, which is assisting with the suit, says that in this particular case “any interests furthered by maintaining grand jury secrecy are outweighed by the interests secured by the First Amendment.” The Boston Globe today editorialized in favor of letting the grand juror speak.

What all of these cases have in common is the belief by some government officials that the press and the public should be treated like mushrooms: watered and in the dark. These matters are not mere threats to abstract constitutional principles. they are assaults on the public’s right to know.

Or as the Frederick News-Post so eloquently put it: Kirby Delauter! Kirby Delauter! Kirby Delauter!

 

A Marathon tale of tragedy and triumph

Recently I had a chance to see an early version of “Undaunted,” a documentary by Boston Globe reporter David Abel about Juli Windsor, the first person with dwarfism to finish the Boston Marathon. But that doesn’t even begin to describe the drama. Windsor nearly completed the 2013 Marathon only to be turned back near the end after the bombing attack.

“Undaunted” tells the story of that day and of Windsor’s quest to compete in 2014. Andrea Shea recently reported on Abel’s project for WBUR Radio. With the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev now getting under way, I thought you might find the trailer above to be considerably more uplifting.

Naming names: Did the Globe make the right call?

redactedPreviously published at WGBH News.

We’re going to be hearing a lot about The Boston Globe’s decision to publish the names of the FBI agent and State Police troopers who were involved in the Florida shooting death of Ibragim Todashev, the Tamerlan Tsarnaev associate suspected of taking part in a triple murder in Waltham.

The story, by Globe reporter Maria Sacchetti, reveals that FBI agent Aaron McFarlane is a former Oakland police officer with a troubling past. The article raises serious questions about how law enforcement handled the investigation of perhaps the single most important figure connected to the Boston Marathon bombing suspects. Here is some background to keep in mind as the discussion unfolds.

This past January, David Boeri of WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) reported on the FBI-State Police interrogation that ended in Todashev’s death. Here’s what Boeri had to say about the names of the agent and the two troopers:

In the course of our investigation, WBUR has learned the names of the law enforcement officers involved in the shooting. We are not releasing the names at the request of both the FBI and the Massachusetts State Police, which cited specific concerns for their safety.

In today’s Globe article, we learn that the FBI agent’s name is Aaron McFarlane, and that he “has previously been publicly identified in a blog about the Boston Marathon case.”

That prompted Boston magazine editor-in-chief Carly Carioli to tweet:

(And by the way, in March Boston published its own long investigation into the shooting. The article, by Susan Zalkind, was also the subject of a one-hour segment on public radio’s “This American Life.”)

Carioli’s tweet leads to a site called “The Boston Marathon Bombings: What Happened?”, which on May 3 revealed the names of McFarlane and the two Massachusetts troopers, Joel Gagne and Curtis Cinelli. (As best as I can tell, that’s the first time any of the three officers was named.) According to the site, the names and uncensored crime-scene photos were obtained from PDFs of public records using techniques that sound similar to what the Globe did. The Globe offers this description:

The Globe obtained their names by removing improperly created redactions from an electronic copy of Florida prosecutor Jeffrey L. Ashton’s report — which in March found the shooting of Todashev justified — and then verifying their identities through interviews and multiple government records. Those records include voting, birth, and pension documents.

On May 5, the same “What Happened?” website revealed some of the problems McFarlane had as a member of the Oakland Police Department that are at the heart of today’s Globe story.

I should note that though the “What Happened?” site appears to have broken some important stories, it also traffics in rather, uh, unusual rhetoric. For instance, here is a photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, bloody and injured as he surrendered in Watertown, beneath the headline “2013: THE YEAR AMERICA BEGAN HUNTING DOWN AND SHOOTINGS[sic] IT’S [sic] OWN TEENAGERS. WHY?”

By all indications the Globe has been careful to do its own reporting — which it would in any case, but which is especially important when dealing with material like this.

Which brings us to the question I imagine we’ll be debating in the days to come: Should the Globe have released the names of McFarlane, Gagne and Cinelli? I’d like to hear arguments on both sides. But keep these three things in mind:

  • The official investigation into Todashev’s death had not been completed when Boeri was doing his reporting for WBUR in January. Since then the three have been cleared by investigators, and the matter is no longer pending.
  • Police officers are doing the public’s business, and we have a right to know as much information as possible about serious matters such as the Todashev shooting. Consider a much more routine example, reported by the Salem News, in which the Essex County district attorney’s office named officers involved in a fatal shooting in the course of disclosing the results of their investigation.
  • Because of the “What Happened?” report, the three names were, in fact, already out there. Whatever calculation Globe editors might have made if this had occurred 20 years ago, it is simply a reality that a mainstream news organization can no longer act as a gatekeeper to prevent the public from learning information that it can find out elsewhere. This change doesn’t call for lower standards, but it does call for different standards.

I realize I’m putting my thumb on the disclosure side of the scale. But I think withholding the names would have been a respectable decision as well. As Sacchetti writes today, “Even Florida, which often identifies such officers, declined to do so in this case, citing concerns for the investigators’ safety.”

At this early stage, I can be persuaded either way, and I’m curious to see and hear what others have to say.

Swartz case leads Media Nation’s top 10 of 2013

Aaron Swartz speaking in 2012
Aaron Swartz speaking in 2012

Last January, not long after the young Internet genius Aaron Swartz committed suicide, civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate wrote powerfully about the abusive prosecutorial tactics that may have led to his death.

Swartz faced a lengthy federal prison sentence for downloading academic articles at MIT without authorization. Even though the publisher, JSTOR, declined to press charges, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz brought a case agains Swartz under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. As Silverglate put it, the law is “a notoriously broad statute enacted by Congress seemingly to criminalize any use of a computer to do something that could be deemed bad.”

Silverglate’s article was republished in Media Nation with the permission of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, where it originally appeared. And it was far and away the most viewed article in Media Nation in 2013.

Today we present Media Nation’s top 10 posts for 2013, based on statistics compiled by WordPress.com. They represent a range of topics — from the vicissitudes of talk radio to a media conflict of interest, from Rolling Stone’s controversial cover image of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to the sad, sudden death of The Boston Phoenix.

The top 10 is by no means representative of the year in media. Certainly the biggest story about journalism in 2013 involved the National Security Agency secrets revealed by Edward Snowden to The Guardian and The Washington Post — a story that did not make the cut at Media Nation.

Here, then, is our unrepresentative sample for the past 12 months.

1. Harvey Silverglate on the Aaron Swartz case (Jan. 24). Few people were more qualified to weigh in on U.S. Attorney Ortiz’s abusive tactics than Silverglate, my friend and occasional collaborator, who several years ago wrote “Three Felonies a Day,” a book on how the federal justice system has spun out of control. But Silverglate’s take wasn’t the only article about Swartz to generate interest in Media Nation. The aftermath of Swartz’s suicide also came in at No. 11 (“The Globe turns up the heat on Carmen Ortiz,” Jan. 11) and No. 13 (“Aaron Swartz, Carmen Ortiz and the meaning of justice,” Jan. 14). In a bit of poetic justice, a project Swartz was working on at the time of his death — software that allows whistleblowers to submit documents without being identified — was unveiled by The New Yorker just several months after his suicide.

2. The New Republic’s new owner crosses a line (Jan. 28). A little more than a year ago, the venerable New Republic was saved by Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook who is using some of his fortune to restore the magazine to relevance and fiscal health. But he crossed an ethical line last January when he took part in an interview with President Obama, whose campaign he had worked on, and tossed a series of softball questions his way. At the time I wrote that Hughes was guilty of “no more than a minor misstep.” So how did it rise to No. 2? It turns out that a number of right-leaning websites picked up on it, bringing a considerable amount of traffic to Media Nation that I normally don’t receive.

3. Dailies go wild over sports controversies (Aug. 30). Four months after publishing this item, I find it hard to make heads or tails of what was going on. But essentially Globe-turned-Herald sportswriter Ron Borges contributed to a Rolling Stone article on the Aaron Hernandez murder case, which generated some tough criticism from both the Globe and the well-known blog Boston Sports Media Watch. That was followed almost immediately by a Globe article on the ratings collapse of sports radio station WEEI (AM 850), which brought yet more tough talk from, among others, ’EEI morning co-host Gerry Callahan, who also happens to write a column for the Herald. Yes, Boston is a small town.

4. Rolling Stone’s controversial cover (July 17). I thought it was brilliant. I still do. The accusion that Rolling Stone was trying to turn Dzhokhar Tsarnaev into some sort of pop-culture hero is absurd and offensive — and not borne out by the well-reported article that the cover was designed to illustrate.

5. Glenn Ordway walks the ratings plank (Feb. 14). Ordway built sports talker WEEI into a ratings monster only to see its numbers crater in the face of competition from the Sports Hub (WBZ-FM, 98.5). Ordway was by no means the problem with WEEI. But station management decided it could no longer afford his $500,000 contract, and so that was it for the Big O.

6. A big moment for The Boston Globe (Dec. 17). It was actually a big year for the Globe, from its riveting coverage of the marathon bombing and the standoff that led to the arrest of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to the paper’s acquisition by Red Sox principal owner John Henry. But two days in mid-December were emblematic of the paper’s continuing excellence and relevance — a long, detailed exposé of the Tsarnaev family that revealed Dzhokhar, rather than his older brother, Tamerlan, may have been the driving force behind the bombing; an investigation into a case of alleged “medical child abuse” that pitted a Connecticut family against Children’s Hospital; and a nationally celebrated series of tweets by staff reporter Billy Baker about a Boston teenager from a poor family who had been admitted to Yale.

7. The Boston Phoenix reaches the end of the road (March 14). A stalwart of the alternative-weekly scene and my professional home from 1991 to 2005, the Phoenix was a voice of incalculable importance. But with even the legendary Village Voice struggling to survive, the alt-weekly moment may have passed. At the time of its death, the Phoenix had more than 100,000 readers — but little revenue, as advertising had dried up and both the print edition and the website were free. I scribbled a few preliminary thoughts in this post, and later wrote something more coherent for PBS MediaShift.

8. The return of Jim Braude and Margery Eagan (Feb. 6). Eagan and Braude’s morning show was the one bright spot on WTKK Radio, an otherwise run-of-the-mill right-wing talk station that had been taken off the air a month earlier. So it was good news indeed when the pair was hired to host “Boston Public Radio” from noon to 2 p.m. on public station WGBH (89.7 FM). (Note: (I am a paid contributor to WGBH-TV’s “Beat the Press,” where Eagan is a frequent panelist.)

9. Joe Scarborough grapples with history — and loses (Feb. 17). Asking cable blowhard Scarborough to write a review for The New York Times Book Review about the relationship between Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon could have been a smart, counterintuitive move. But it only works if the writer in question is, you know, smart.

10. The bell tolls for WTKK Radio (Jan. 3). As I already mentioned, Jim Braude and Margery Eagan were able to walk away from the rubble of WTKK, which was shut down by corporate owner Greater Media and turned into an urban music station. Just a few years earlier the station had been a ratings success with trash-talking hosts like Jay Severin and Michael Graham. But tastes change — sometimes for the better.

Photo (cc) by Maria Jesus V and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.