Editorial: Thankless, crucial jobs in bombing case
As we write, the fate of alleged Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s body remains unresolved. No city or state wants to be the place where he is interred, and it remains to be seen whether Russia, where his parents now live, will permit the importation of his corpse. The reluctance is understandable. No community wants to be seen as the final resting place of a terrorist or mass murderer, nor have to cope with the ghoulish strain of tourism that might result. But one measure of society is how it treats its dead; another how it treats those accused of even the most heinous crimes. The case of Tsarnaev brothers – Dzhokhar is recovering in a prison hospital – is testing both.
We applaud those who obeyed their professional codes of conduct despite their revulsion at the cowardly acts allegedly committed by the brothers. Among them are the doctors and nurses who saved Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s life. Another person who has passed that test is Worcester, Mass., funeral director Peter Stefan. Stefan agreed to accept Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s body and allowed an uncle who, though horrified by his nephews’ alleged actions, nonetheless acted in accordance with Muslim practices and prepared the suspected terrorist’s body for burial.
“We take an oath to do this. Can I pick and choose? No. Can I separate the sins from the sinners? No. We are burying a dead body. That’s what we do,” Stefan told a reporter for the Associated Press. But Stefan has searched the Eastern Seaboard for a place willing to accept Tsarnaev’s remains and come up empty.
A civilized society does not leave a corpse, no matter who it is, on the street or dump it in a landfill. If no private cemetery owner permits Tsarnaev’s burial, government – local, state or federal – should, as Stefan requested, make space for him in a potter’s field.
A society and a legal system can function because professional oaths and codes of conduct like those observed by funeral directors, physicians, lawyers and others oblige them to serve even the most hateful among us for the public good. At times such people are the difference between civilization and barbarity, between the rule of law and the actions of a lynch mob.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who could face the death penalty, will be defended by a team that includes Miriam Conrad, chief federal public defender for Massachusetts, Rhodes Island and New Hampshire, and Judy Clarke, the lawyer and former public defender who was on the teams that represented Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber; Jared Loughner, the mentally ill man who shot U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in the head and killed a judge; Atlanta Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph; and accused 9/11 terrorist conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui.
Public defenders have often thankless, always crucial jobs. At times they’re reviled for representing the reprehensible, but without them the American system of justice couldn’t begin to provide equal justice for all. Twenty-five years ago, in a case called Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that when it unanimously ruled that a lower court, by denying an indigent man legal counsel, violated his rights under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Sixth guarantees the accused “the assistance of counsel for his defense”; the Fourteenth forbids depriving anyone of life or liberty without due process of law. Today, no matter what one believes the fate of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should be, we are a better society because people like Stefan, the medical staff who saved Tsarnaev’s life, and his defenders are willing to endure the enmity that can come with acting on principle to aid someone accused of a loathsome crime.