Boston bomb suspect called 'lucid,' but how much does he know?

A US judge read Dzhokhar Tsarnaev his rights at a hospital bedside hearing, finding him 'mentally competent.' The Boston bombing suspect reportedly called his brother the attack's mastermind.

Courtesy of Reuters
Boston Marathon bombing suspects Dzhokhar (back) and Tamerlan Tsarnaev are revealed in this photo during an FBI news conference in Boston last Thursday.
Federal Bureau of Investigation/AP
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

The surviving suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings is described as alert and “mentally competent,” but he also now has a lawyer.

As of Monday, when a US judge visited Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in his hospital room, Mr. Tsarnaev has been notified of his legal right to remain silent and has accepted the offer of legal counsel from a public defender.

It’s not clear how much information the bombing suspect will provide to federal investigators from here on. One reason for being forthcoming, legal analysts say, would be to reduce the risk of a death sentence for the charges outlined by the Justice Department Monday.

At the same time, it's not clear how much he knows. According to news reports, he has said that he and his brother, who was killed in a gun fight with police, acted alone. But he is also reported to have labeled his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, as the attack's mastermind.

Other news accounts in recent days, citing people who knew one or both Tsarnaev brothers, have corroborated the view that Tamerlan had an intensity and religious passion that Dzhokhar lacked.

The surviving brother has already communicated at least a bit with investigators, by writing. According to government sources quoted by The New York Times and CNN, Tsarnaev has admitted he helped plant the bombs that went off near the marathon finish line on April 15, and has said he and his brother didn't act as part of a larger terrorist group.

CNN said Dzhokhar Tsarnaev identified his older brother as the attack's guiding force and as motivated by a desire to defend Islam from attack.

Investigators questioned Tsarnaev initially without reading him his so-called Miranda rights, citing a provision in law that allows such notification to be delayed when a matter of urgent public safety is at stake. In this case, the public safety questions included whether more bombs existed and whether the two brothers were part of a group that might be planning other attacks.

Tsarnaev told investigators that he knew of no other plots and no other bombs, the Times reported.

Since Sunday, Tsarnaev has spoken at least one word. Although he is recovering from a serious neck injury, and is breathing through a tube, the 19-year-old said “No” when asked if he could afford to hire a lawyer.

“Let the record reflect that I believe the defendant has said, ‘No,’ ” US Judge Marianne Bowler said, according to a transcript of the hospital-room court proceeding.

At the hearing, Tsarnaev was informed of his legal rights and told that the federal charges – including use of a weapon of mass destruction – could carry the death penalty.

Three people died in the twin explosions on Boston’s Boylston Street, and the estimated number of wounded has risen to 282, according to the Boston Public Health Commission.

Tsarnaev could also end up facing charges relating to the shooting death of Sean Collier, an MIT campus police officer, on Thursday as the brothers were seeking to evade capture.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev died after a gun fight with police that same night.

In the Monday hearing, Judge Bowler also set May 30 as the date for a probable-cause hearing, at which prosecutors will sketch the case they intend to argue.

“I find that the defendant is alert, mentally competent, and lucid,” the judge said at the end of Monday’s hospital bed-side hearing. “He is aware of the nature of the proceedings.”

Even as they seek information directly from Dzhokar Tsarnaev, investigators are pursuing information from a range of other sources including Internet and phone records and people who knew the brothers. That’s important, in part, to ensure they are not being misled by the suspect.

Already, from the criminal complaint Monday, it’s clear that federal prosecutors are preparing to argue that, even if Tamerlan was the leader, Dzhokhar was a knowing participant.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, in a TV interview, said investigators have told him about video footage in their possession: “It does seem to be pretty clear that this suspect took the backpack off, put it down, did not react when the first explosion went off, and then moved away from the backpack in time for the second explosion," Governor Patrick told NBC News.

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