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Why civilian courts are best for terror trials, especially Boston bombing suspect

As more than 1,000 terrorism trials over the last decade show, the federal court system is well equipped to handle terrorism cases like that of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. His trial may also help harmonize US counterterrorism efforts with those of its allies.

By Melanie Getreuer / April 30, 2013

Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, pictured here, is being held in a federal medical detention facility in Ayer, Mass. Op-ed contributor Melanie Getreuer says that convicted terrorists held in federal prison have rarely re-offended once released, as opposed to those held at Guantánamo, where a full quarter of those who have been released have gone on to commit or are suspected of committing further terrorist crimes.



New York

Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is now sitting in a 10-by-10-foot cell at Federal Medical Center Devens in Ayer, Mass. about 40 miles west of Boston. There, he awaits the next steps in the US government’s case against him – first, a probable cause hearing scheduled for May 30. 

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Before Mr. Tsarnaev got to this point, there was debate among some lawmakers about whether Tsarnaev should be tried as an enemy combatant in a military tribunal or whether he should be tried as a civilian in the federal court system. The arguments from those who pushed for a military trial were at best misplaced. As a US citizen, Tsarnaev could not have been tried in a military tribunal. Those arguments also ignored the institutional safeguards that already exist in our federal court system to protect classified information, as well as the impressive track record of the Justice Department in prosecuting terrorism since September 11, 2001. 

As the nearly 1,000 terrorism trials over the last decade indicate, the federal court system is well equipped to handle the complexities of terrorism cases. And it is well equipped to administer justice in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. In fact, as global counterterrorism efforts have shifted to the legal arena across countries as diverse as Britain and Russia, Tsarnaev’s trial can show Americans the benefits of approaching terrorism as the serious international criminal threat that it is, rather than as part of the so-called global “war on terror.”

Europe has increasingly combated terrorism through the criminal justice system, significantly expanding laws for arresting, trying, and detaining terrorism suspects. The Tsarnaev trial may therefore help to harmonize US counterterrorism efforts with those of our closest international counterterrorism partners, while also allowing America to more effectively participate in the global counterterrorism conversation.

The US Justice Department has proven both remarkably efficient and effective at putting terrorism on trial. As research by NYU’s Law and Security Center shows, the Department of Justice has averaged about 30 terrorism indictments a year since 2001. (The exception to this statistic is from 2009-2010 when, on the heels of increased law enforcement sting operations and a renewed focus on extremists associated with the terrorist group Al-Shabaab, rates nearly doubled.)

Most of those trials have proceeded without the use of classified evidence, and over half have involved American citizens. Like Tsarnaev, 60 percent of these American defendants had no direct affiliation with a terrorist organization.


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Danny Bent poses at the starting line of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, Mass.

After the Boston Marathon bombings, Danny Bent took on a cross-country challenge

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