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Q&A with Boston Marathon bombing prosecutor Aloke Chakravarty 97L

Susan Carini 04G, writing and interviewing as Emory Lawyer |
Aloke Chakravarty 96L
"I tried hard to show, rather than tell, the story of the defendant and what he did in a way that would morally persuade and unify a diverse jury."

In a case watched around the world, Aloke Chakravarty 97L won a death-penalty verdict in May 2015 against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving brother responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing. Chakravarty is assistant US attorney in the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts. In the course of his career, he has assembled an impressive number of successful prosecutions in high-profile terrorism cases.

In addition to the conversation below with Chakravarty, see the spring 2016 issue of Emory Magazine, to which he granted an exclusive interview about details of the Boston Marathon bombing trial.

Emory Lawyer: Judy Clarke, Tsarnaev’s lawyer, has said that he agreed to plead guilty before the trial and had written a letter of apology. Is this accurate? If so, why did the government proceed with the case?

AC: Issues related to the decision to seek the death penalty are informed by a strict protocol that requires absolute confidentiality. That protocol also makes clear that seeking the death penalty cannot be a bargaining chip solely to improve a negotiating position. Rather, it is a solemn decision of the attorney general based on the circumstances of a specific case. 

Emory Lawyer: The media has grumbled about how many trial documents were sealed by Judge O’Toole. As the New Yorker reported, “Many of the voluminous motions and filings made by both the government and the defense were sealed from the public record. Judge O’Toole granted the secrecy and explained his rationale in a series of rulings. But they, too, are secret.” Is this level of secrecy justified?

AC: There are a lot of reasons why documents need to be sealed in criminal proceedings. Courts have to be particularly careful in national security matters, ongoing investigations, and high-profile cases. A primary reason in a case like this is the importance of ensuring a fair trial without premature exposure of details that may or may not become evidence and could extra-judicially influence the trial. Accordingly, since the trial is now over, the judge has ordered the parties to propose which documents now can be unsealed. We have public and fair trials in this country, and to ensure that can happen, some of the issues have to be resolved out of the public eye. 

Emory Lawyer: You have talked about being able to teach a course on your closing argument. Might you do so someday? Explain the audiences you were speaking to, the goals you set for the closing, and how well you think it achieved those ends.

AC: Others will have to judge whether I was effective. I tried hard to show, rather than tell, the story of the defendant and what he did in a way that would morally persuade and unify a diverse jury as to how it happened. For all that had been said about the case, no one had yet tied together the evidence and given a rational voice to the sentiment of the community. I was also cognizant that our system of justice was under scrutiny. In executing that responsibility, I chose to be myself in a way that honors and updates the craft. I also set out to make the narrative stronger than the sum of its parts. Occasionally I do get to teach law school classes, and when I do, I emphasize the power of narrative and the role of technology in how we consume information.

Emory Lawyer: How do you think the appeal process in the case will sort itself out?

AC: The appeal process, including collateral attacks on the sentence, will continue for years. It’s hard to predict what issues will resonate over time and also how the law may change. Obviously, denial of the change-of-venue motion will be a primary issue. I wish the appeal sorted itself out, but alas, I likely will remain involved as long as I’m in a position to be. 

Emory Lawyer: What was the first thing you did to recharge following the conclusion of the trial? 

AC: The Saturday after the verdict, my four-year-old said, “I missed you, baba.” I spent a lot of time with my family. Any commitment like this requires a team at home as well, and mine carried me through. Over the summer, we were able to travel a little to visit friends and family, and I was able to go hiking and finally to take up fly-fishing. 

Emory Lawyer: Did you read journalist Masha Gessen’s book The Brothers? Some people find its lack of emphasis on the victims off-putting while others see her attempt to understand the Tsarnaev family’s history as important context for understanding the brothers’ state of mind.

AC: I did read Gessen’s book — during the trial, actually. She was present during much of the trial and was clearly interested in the family/radicalization dynamics, just as we and the defense were, so I mined it for any insight that we may not have had. She was very thoughtful but had her own perspective and interests. Undoubtedly the themes of dislocation and difference that she builds up in her book are issues that I deal with frequently in my work and attempt to ameliorate through outreach efforts. However, the search for identity is not always prompted by a migration story, and those who have uprooted are not inherently more vulnerable to radicalization. How we choose to shape our identity is the result of a complex mixture of influences and circumstances but ultimately is a reflection of our own character. Gessen’s book overlapped with some of these issues but highlighted only some parts of the mix and injected others that were more tenuous, and without the benefit of cross-examination or challenge.

Emory Lawyer: You followed a crooked path to where you are today, at one time thinking that, to please your parents, you would be a doctor. What were some of the decisive moments that shaped your career? 

AC: In college, I was taken by the economics of inequity — who had power and who didn’t. I went to law school thinking that it could provide me tools to do something about it, but I didn’t know how. The rest was luck. In my 2l summer, I found myself working at a big corporate law firm because, at the time, that was what most people were competing to do. Halfway through the summer, one of the lawyers took me aside and explained that if I wanted to try cases, I should go into criminal law. When I graduated, that’s what I did. I was profoundly impacted by the victims that I worked with, and I tried to work with as many great lawyers, police officers, and agents as I could. After September 11, I wanted to apply constitutional principles from the criminal practice to national security investigations. Joining the FBI allowed me to make an impact from within the government and gave me perspective if I were to go back into the courtroom. I returned to Boston as a prosecutor when my wife got a job there. I began to investigate human rights violators in addition to terrorism matters and ultimately got the chance to spend some time at a war crimes tribunal before returning to try a series of terrorism and genocide cases.

Emory Lawyer: Turning more broadly to the cases in which you specialize, why is the international component of the work you do so important to you?

AC: My parents came to this country for opportunity and became part of the cultural diversity that makes it great. As the world gets smaller and more interconnected, it becomes more obvious that our domestic security is tied to world events. I’ve watched moral leadership strengthen our security, and the rule of law is the greatest tool to exhibit that to the world. Managing international issues in my work is important because it’s difficult to be sensitive to the complexities of different cultures, political dynamics, and international legal challenges. When done successfully, we can use the law creatively to make a positive difference here and abroad.

Emory Lawyer: You cite three things from your Emory Law days that especially influenced you: the 2L Kessler- Eidson Trial Techniques program, the class Persuasion and Drama, and The Carter Center. Say a bit about the formative influence of each on you.

AC: I came to Emory Law to be close to family and on the reputation of The Carter Center, inspired by its efforts to ensure international human rights. In the Trial Techniques course, I was introduced to the craft of advocacy and learned that I could thrive in a courtroom. Perhaps most practically, Professor Kent Whipple taught a Persuasion and Drama class showing me that how one communicates can be as powerful as what one says. Professor Whipple passed away a few years later. I continue to use what he taught me to this day. 

Emory Lawyer: One important aspect of what you strive to do is seek out homegrown terrorists without violating anyone’s civil rights. You have done extensive work with the bridges (Building Respect in Diverse Groups to Enhance Sensitivity) program, a group of law enforcement and community leaders who meet monthly to discuss community concerns and issues. Describe how you have been able to make progress and achieve credibility, even with those who might previously have felt they attracted unfair scrutiny from law enforcement.

AC: bridges is premised on the notion that discussion and mutual education are far preferable to litigation and estrangement. For more than a decade, we’ve tried to identify problems, educate each other on how to work through them, and better empower young American communities in civil society. This work is a complement to civil rights and national security investigations because it informs how we can better do that work while also strengthening communities. The relationships we have built have withstood numerous controversies and incidents, including some of the cases that I have prosecuted. Even some of my former defendants and family members have attended our events. Ultimately, the integrity of government engagement has to be built on honesty, consistency, and trust. After the Marathon bombings, those relationships were tested again, and they showed a resilience that reaffirmed civil rights while energizing some to assist actively in broader prevention efforts.

Emory Lawyer: Sometimes, despite laudable intentions, it gets personal, as it did when you were pursuing the case against Tarek Mehanna, whom you convicted in 2012 for providing material support to terrorists through use of the Internet. As the Washington Post chronicled in a 2011 piece about you, the Tarek Mehanna Support Committee deluged you with faxes and letters condemning the case as “an outrageous example of religious persecution and institutional abuse of power.” They then came looking for you at your office. How do you handle it when community members step over the line?

AC: I have seen prosecutorial abuse of power. The cost of those mistakes transcends any case and weakens our rule of law. So, I think it’s valuable to listen to criticism and consider it. I have found that frequently critics don’t know the relevant facts or are posturing as part of a broader political strategy. Regardless, government functions better when it honestly assesses itself, explains itself, and is accessible to those it serves. I’ve tried to do that by engaging with folks when able, making factual allegations clear, making public information more easily available, and by steps that show that government actions are not born of ignorance or prejudice. That is something that legitimately comes with the territory. Threatening or obstructive behavior, however, is another issue entirely and has been much less common.

Emory Lawyer: You may speak softly enough so that your supervisor won’t hear, but do your substantial successes suggest new turns on that crooked path of yours? Where else would you like to take your career?

AC: I have been blessed to do work for the common good alongside uncommonly good people. I don’t know what the future holds, but I feel like I’m making a difference. As long as the work is creative, challenging, and helps make the world a better place, Emory Law opened the door to that next step, wherever it may be.

Photo credit: Kay Hinton of Emory Photo Video