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When Dzhokar Tsarnaev has his day in court, he will be defended by some of the best lawyers in the business. Only two weeks after he allegedly planted the Boston bombs that took three lives, and severely wounded so many others, the court has appointed a defense team with client rosters that read like a worst-of-the-worst list.
Miriam Conrad is one of the country's most well-respected public defenders. A graduate of Harvard Law School, Conrad has defended notorious clients for more than two decades. This is not even Conrad's first terrorism case, she assisted in the defense of Richard Reid, the so-called shoe bomber, who tried to blow up a passenger plane in 2001 with explosives packed in his sneakers. Reid was sentenced to life in prison.
Conrad recently defended a Muslim-American radicalized by online videos who plotted to fly remote-controlled model airplanes packed with explosives into the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 17 years in prison.
"Miriam is really committed to the cases that have no chance of winning, just as committed as she is to the cases that she could possibly win. She's really hard working, and cares a whole lot about her clients, and is really a determined, tenacious lawyer," said Tamar Birckhead, of the University of North Carolina School of Law. Birckhead helped defend Richard Reid, working with Conrad in Boston's Federal Public Defender Office.
"Miriam is extremely well-regarded by the judges in Boston, as well as by the attorneys in the U.S. Attorneys' Office, the prosecutors. She has an excellent reputation, and combined with her own intellect and natural talents, she's a very effective attorney," said Birckhead.
Conrad will have her work cut out for her. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is charged with detonating a weapon of mass destruction, if convicted he could face the death penalty.
For that reason prominent Defense Attorney Judy Clarke has also joined the team. Death penalty cases are Clarke's specialty.
“I cannot tell you what a legend Judy Clarke is in the United States legal system. This woman is widely regarded as a miracle worker,” CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said.
Clarke has defended the so-called unabomber, Ted Kaczynski; Eric Rudolph, who was responsible for the Atlanta Olympics bombing; and most recently Jared Loughner, who went on a shooting rampage in Tuscon, Arizona, killing six people and severely wounding Congresswomen Gabby Giffords when he shot her in the head .
All escaped the death penalty, getting life sentences instead, an outcome Tsarnaev's attorneys likely will pursue if prosecutors decide to seek the death penalty.
"The primary goal Miriam is going to have is saving her client's life," said Birckhead. "The first step towards doing that is making a connection with the client. Establishing rapport so that he trusts her, so that she can get the information that she needs from him, so that ultimately he respects and listens to her legal advice."
Prosecuting and defending the case against and for Tsarnaev, who is currently in federal custody outside of Boston, will take some time. The defendant’s legal team will likely seek to draw out the case, at least initially.
“One of the things that a lawyer like Judy Clarke does is slow everything down,” Toobin said. “I think they might not be talking to him at all."
“The country is mobilized, it’s angry right now,” he continued. “This is exactly not the time the defense wants to be negotiating about anything. Slow things down - then they’ll talk to him about his life, get his full life story, not just this crime, and then worry about negotiating or trying him in court.”
That’s part of the strategy Clarke has employed in the other high-profile cases she has defended.