Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. (Photo provided by FBI via Getty Images)The suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, will not be treated as an enemy combatant and will face trial in a civilian, federal court, White House spokesman Jay Carney announced Monday.
In his hospital bed, the 19-year-old was charged with using a weapon of mass destruction, killing three people and injuring more than 200.
Carney's announcement contradicts calls from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and others for the government to place Tsarnaev in detention as an "enemy combatant" while questioning him about the bombing.
Enemy combatants do not have access to a lawyer while they're questioned, and in some circumstances can be tried by military tribunals. The courts haven't settled the question of whether a U.S. citizen arrested on U.S. soil could be treated as an enemy combatant, however. But to even have a shot at trying that approach, the government would need strong evidence showing a link between Tsarnaev and al-Qaida or other terrorist network. (Tsarnaev became a U.S. citizen in 2012.)
“You can’t hold every person who commits a terrorist attack as an enemy combatant, I agree with that,” Graham told The New York Times' Charlie Savage last weekend. “But you have a right, with his radical Islamist ties and the fact that Chechens are all over the world fighting with al-Qaida—I think you have a reasonable belief to go down that road, and it would be a big mistake not to go down that road. If we didn’t hold him for intelligence-gathering purposes, that would be unconscionable.”
Steve Vladeck, a law professor at American University, disagreed, saying it's legally "impossible" for Tsarnaev to be treated as an enemy combatant given that so far there's no evidence he is part of a larger terrorist network. Even if strong evidence did emerge, Tsarnaev's status as a U.S. citizen and that he was arrested in America, not abroad, would make it unlikely the government could hold him in military detention.
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