U.S. budget cuts could affect Boston bomb suspect's defense

Story highlights

  • Marathon bombing suspect represented by federal public defender's office
  • Office is subject to sweeping government budget cuts that took effect in March
  • Lawyers may have to take unpaid leave to ease budget pressure on office
  • Any absence could impact timing of any resolution in case - whether a trial or plea deal
Lawyers for Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev may have to delay full representation because of sweeping federal budget cuts.
The appointed counsel, who are federal government employees, are likely to soon face about three work weeks of furloughs before September 30, the end of the federal budget year.
That could mean any resolution in the case -- whether it is a criminal trial or possible plea bargain -- would take longer than normal.
Some federal agencies have had to resort to placing employees on unpaid leave to meet budget obligations under so-called sequester, activated due to congressional inaction on budget deficit reduction.
The government-wide cuts of $85 billion through September kicked in March 1. Congress has since given budget flexibility for homeland security, agriculture inspections, veterans services, and air traffic controllers.
Attorney General Eric Holder said last week that, for now, federal prosecutors would not be affected by any reductions and would operate at full staff.
But an administrative panel of the federal courts last month approved a plan to implement furloughs at public defender offices nationwide.
The Federal Public Defender's office in Boston, which is representing Tsarnaev, lists 13 lawyers covering indigent clients in the state. The office also operates in New Hampshire and Rhode Island.
Three lawyers from that office are listed on court records as representing Tsarnaev, who faces charges relating to the deadly April 15 bombing that are death penalty eligible.
They are William Fick, who speaks Russian, Miriam Conrad, who heads the office, and Timothy Watkins. The court this week approved the addition of Judy Clarke, a California-based private attorney experienced in death penalty defenses.
Tsarnaev, 19, whose family is originally from the Russian republic of Chechnya before moving to Dagestan and then the Boston area, is a U.S. citizen and a college student in Massachusetts before his capture nearly two weeks ago.
He is being held at a prison medical facility west of Boston and his next court hearing is May 30. He has not been indicted.
The defender's office would not talk publicly about the case or the timing of any staff cutbacks.
But a government legal source confirmed that the furloughs would occur in the early stages of Tsarnaev's defense.
Other legal sources say it could affect the ability of his legal team to speak with and establish a rapport with him.
It could also make it harder to manage much of the initial legal legwork, such as researching his past and developing a preliminary legal strategy.
The situation would be made worse if different attorneys are forced to take different days off as part of the unpaid leave.
The government-paid defense attorneys are managed through the federal judicial system. Court officials said the Boston defenders had initially planned on 16.5 days of forced leave.
"The Federal Defender office is severely affected," by the sequestration, said Chief Judge Patti Saris of the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts.
"Employees who are furloughed will be out of the office on alternate Fridays and on many Mondays. While judges will attempt to accommodate furloughs in the defender's office, it is not likely that criminal trials will be significantly affected."
Other courts nationwide have individual discretion to implement furlough plans.
Nationwide, the judiciary's budget was cut nearly $350 million for the current fiscal year. Court officials in Washington anticipate as many as 2,000 federal employees will be laid off or furloughed for one day per two-week pay period.
The case is U.S. v. Tsarnaev 1:13-mj-0216.