BOSTON -- The Justice Department on Monday publicly charged Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev with using a weapon of mass destruction, a charge that could bring the death penalty.
In unsealed court filings that shed dramatic new light on what investigators think happened before, during and after the lethal explosions, prosecutors charged Tsarnaev with one count of using and conspiring to use a WMD resulting in death. The 19-year-old ethnic Chechen, a naturalized U.S. citizen, also was charged with one count of malicious destruction of property by means of an explosive device resulting in death.
If convicted on either charge, Tsarnaev faces the death penalty or life in prison. He also faces the possibility of state criminal charges, as well, in connection with the bombings, which killed three people and wounded more than 200.
“Although our investigation is ongoing, today’s charges bring a successful end to a tragic week for the city of Boston, and our country,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement.
In a solemn ceremony Monday, the FBI turned Boylston Street – which has been considered a crime scene – back to the city. A bagpiper played as the flag that flew over the finish line during the race was presented to Mayor Tom Menino.
The street won’t be open to the public until buildings along it have been inspected for structural damage, city officials said.
The charges against Tsarnaev, initially filed under seal Sunday, were presented to him Monday in his room at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where he’s listed in serious condition after his capture last Friday. FBI officials said Monday that Tsarnaev was wounded in the head, neck, leg and hand after two shootouts with law enforcement officers.
“The government will always seek to elicit all the actionable intelligence and information we can from terrorist suspects taken into our custody,” said Carmen Ortiz, U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts.
At the same time, rejecting calls made by congressional Republicans, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration wouldn’t designate Tsarnaev as an enemy combatant. The designation would have permitted additional interrogation of Tsarnaev, but Carney said it was unnecessary.
“It is important to remember that since 9/11 we have used the federal court system to convict and incarcerate hundreds of terrorists,” Carney said.
The weapon of mass destruction charge is rooted in a fairly broad definition of the term. Under U.S. law, a weapon of mass destruction may refer to a chemical, biological or radiological weapon of any size. It also may refer to a bomb, mine or rocket, or similar kinds of “destructive devices.” The statute doesn’t specify a certain number of casualties for a weapon to be considered one of “mass destruction.”
The charges were unsealed in federal court in Boston shortly before the usually bustling city calmed for a moment of silence at 2:50 p.m., the approximate time of the first bomb explosion April 15. At Logan International Airport, passengers paused for about a minute, while men took off their revered Boston Red Sox baseball caps.
Two prosecutors from the Massachusetts district’s Anti-Terrorism and National Security Unit, William Weinreb and Aloke Chakravarty, will lead the case for the Justice Department. Weinreb’s prior cases include the high-profile charges against Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized American citizen from Pakistan who was sentenced to life in prison for the attempted bombing of New York’s Times Square three years ago.