How Pressure Cookers Get Classified as a WMD

FBI/AP

Accusing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev of carrying out a WMD strike at the Boston Marathon could offer prosecutors a clear route to a conviction, even though the two pressure-cooker devices used in last week's attack do not fit the accepted definition of a "weapon of mass destruction," academics and former federal prosecutors said on Tuesday.

Tsarnaev, 19, could face execution if he is convicted of "using and conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction" in the twin explosions that killed three people and wounded more than 200 on April 15. The charge is possible due to an expansive legal definition folding such arms into a wider class of "destructive devices" that can include small explosives, even when such devices lack any of the chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear components associated with most WMD discussions outside of U.S. law.

"In some ways this is the easiest count to allege at this moment in time," said Michael Sullivan, a former U.S. attorney for Massachusetts. "The devices themselves fit very nicely within the statute."

"Within the next 30 days, the government will indict the defendant, and there I think you'll see some additional counts beyond the two counts in [Monday's] complaint, particularly if they develop evidence related to his terrorist activities," Sullivan said by telephone from Boston. Tsarnaev faces a separate charge of "malicious destruction of property by means of an explosive device resulting in death." His brother and suspected accomplice Tamerlan was killed in a Friday shootout with police.

The broad legal definition for "weapons of mass destruction" began to take shape in 1994, under one provision of a federal law better known for imposing a decade-long ban on manufacturing certain assault weapons.

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act "beefed up the federal death penalty statutes and ... created these new offenses," said Richard Roper, a former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas. "This is one of them."

Roper said the Patriot Act and a later 2004 law tweaked that statutory WMD definition, which federal prosecutors have used on numerous occasions since the Sept. 11 attacks in cases involving "conventional" explosives.

Weapons of mass destruction charges might be "a favored tool of prosecutors" because pursuing them does not involve clearing certain hurdles involved in other legal strategies, a Duke University public policy specialist suggested.

"You don’t have to get into the definition of whether this is terrorism or not, you don’t have to prove motivation, you just have to prove that the person has used [a destructive device] against any person or property in the United States," said David Schanzer, who heads the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security.

"There’s an incongruity between the statute and the way the word ‘WMD’ is used [elsewhere], but I don’t see that as a problem," he added.

Roper said prosecutors sometimes pile a WMD accusation onto other charges to gain additional leverage in plea negotiations. Defense lawyers know such charges carry "the possibility of the death penalty, and sometimes that engenders more cooperation," he said.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

    Download
  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

    Download
  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

    Download
  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.