THE BLOG
04/24/2013 09:09 am ET | Updated Jun 24, 2013

How the Rule of Law Can Heal My Wounded City

The Boston area, where I live and work, remains stunned by the trauma we suffered last week at the hands of violent criminals, who killed and maimed for no possible reason I can fathom. Funerals for victims of the Marathon bombings and the subsequent rampage through Cambridge and Watertown are now part of our collective experience and memory. So are the ongoing efforts at local hospitals to heal the many wounded, who must now adjust to their physical and emotional scars.

And for me it is deeply comforting that the rule of law has begun to assert itself in response to the lawlessness we saw on our streets last week.

This occurred not just by police intervention last week, after which an entire city sighed relief.

It was also symbolized by Monday afternoon's dramatic bedside judicial proceeding at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, located in Boston's hospital row, where suspected bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev lies badly injured from the shootout with police and possibly a self-inflicted wound.

Magistrate Judge Margaret B. Bowler of the United States District Court turned Tsarnaev's hospital room into a federal courtroom. A doctor was present. So was a court reporter, as Judge Bowler spoke to Tsarnaev for his initial appearance before the court.

Based on the transcript, she informed the 19-year-old that he has been charged with using a weapon of mass destruction as well as destruction of property resulting in death. An assistant US attorney then explained to the defendant that the crime is subject to the death penalty or imprisonment of up to life, and a maximum fine of $250,000.

"As a first step in this hearing, I am going to tell you about your constitutional rights," the judge continued. There had been debate during the weekend over when the suspect would be Mirandized, as law enforcement investigators had begun asking him questions, reportedly eliciting an admission on Sunday that he participated in the Marathon bombing.

But now he was in the hands of a federal court. He was being informed by the judge that henceforth he may remain silent and if he chooses to speak, his words can be used to incriminate him. Bowler continued methodically, informing Tsarnaev that he may now consult with an attorney prior to any questioning, that an attorney will be appointed if he can't afford one.

"If at any time I say something you do not understand, interrupt me and say so; is that clear?," asked the judge.

The defendant, who has difficulty speaking due to a throat wound, "nods affirmatively," according to the transcript.

"All right," observed Judge Bowler. "I note that the defendant has nodded affirmatively."

No one present in that highly-guarded hospital room, or perhaps anywhere in the Boston area, is deceived by the civility of this legal proceeding.

If found guilty, it will be confirmed that Tsarnaev is a monstrous sociopath, who showed no compunction in planting a bomb within two yards of three children, killing one of them. We will learn the other details soon enough.

But our society, our judiciary and our constitutional system of protections - including many rights boldly established by America's founders - are not intended to condone the guilty. They are intended to guarantee fairness in determining whether someone in fact is guilty. That's why our courts provide for an adversary system, in which a defendant can challenge evidence, in this case by the office of the Federal Public Defender. Because the first function of the judicial system is to find the truth.

The emotional temperature around Boston could not be higher. Amidst our deep sorrow, a tide of anger is flowing. It is inconceivable that anyone would so brazenly attack innocent men, women and children, who had simply gathered to celebrate a harmless international athletic event.

And it's at such moments, that our rule of law is most desperately needed. Civilization stands for the rule of law, not the law of the jungle. By addressing this troubled kid as "Mr. Tsarnaev", by appointing him free counsel when he indicated he can't afford a lawyer, by soberly apprising him of his rights, even to the point of inviting him to interrupt the judge if he becomes confused, we have shown our humanity and our respect for due process.

We don't throw defendants at the mercy of lynch mobs. Instead, we calmly mete out justice.

And that's what sets us apart from the rampaging criminals who terrorized this beautiful city at our annual rite of spring. And that's one way we'll begin to heal.

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