The Legal Strategy Facing Wife of Boston Bombing Suspect

May 9, 2013

Katherine Russell, the North Kingstown native who is the widow of suspected marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, has added a new person to her legal team, someone with expertise handling cases involving terrorism.  Her original lawyers come from a small Providence firm called DeLuca and Weizenbaum.

They specialize in medical malpractice.  Rhode Island Public Radio's Flo Jonic looks into how the firm ended up representing Katherine Russell, and what her legal options as the probe continues into what she knew about her husband's activities.

In the interest of full disclosure, the firm is a longtime underwriter of Rhode Island Public Radio.

Outside the Providence office of DeLuca and Weizenbaum.
Credit Flo Jonic / RIPR

DeLuca and Weizenbaum has its offices in a three-story brick building at the foot of Providence’s leafy College Hill.  The principles are Amato “Buddy” DeLuca, a graduate of Suffolk University Law School and veteran personal injury attorney and Miriam Weizenbaum, a graduate of Temple University Law School, who worked as a public defender in Philadelphia for many years.

Andrew Horwitz, associate dean of the Roger Williams University Law School, says DeLuca and Weizenbaum are known for being exceptionally well-prepared.

“They do everything together,” says Horwitz. “They are a team. They don’t have ‘one person has one case and somebody else has another case.’ When you hire this law firm you get those two lawyers, every piece of them, on the case.”

Feared in the medical community and revered in legal circles, the firm lists a string of successes on its website: a $15 million judgment against Blue Cross and Blue Shield, $10 million for a brain injury, nearly $9 million for the loss of a limb, and the list goes on and on.

Why did Warren Russell, an emergency room physician and his wife, Judith, a nurse, call on attorneys who win missing limb cases to represent their daughter as she talks with the FBI? DeLuca tells Rhode Island Public Radio a friend called and asked him to help the young woman. The firm, he says, has taken the case on a pro bono basis. DeLuca says not charging Russell just seemed like the right thing to do.

But is DeLuca and Weizenbaum up to representing Boston Marathon bombing suspect widow Katherine Russell? David Zlotnick, a criminal law professor at Roger Williams University Law School and a former federal prosecutor, has his doubts.

“In Rhode Island they have a reputation of being a classy shop, well prepared, with a tremendous expertise in medical malpractice and personal injury litigation,” says Zlotnick. “How that transfers over to representing someone in the unique situation of being a widow of a terrorist, I have a hard time seeing that jump. But nevertheless you have to think about why the family made this choice.”

Zlotnick believes DeLuca and Weizenbaum should bring in an outside expert to help them; someone experienced in complex Justice Department cases. But his colleague at Roger Williams Law School, Associate Dean Andrew Horwitz, says it’s too soon for that.

“It would be premature to make that kind of a judgment now,” says Horwitz, “before she’s been charged or at least before the government makes it abundantly clear that she’s a suspect or a target. If we cross that line then I think I would agree with that notion – that somebody with some connection to the Department of Justice would probably be very helpful.”

DeLuca and Weizenbaum, interviewed Monday, would not clarify conflicting reports over whether Russell is still cooperating with federal investigators.  But if she is, agents are undoubtedly asking tough questions -- like how bombs could be built in her Cambridge apartment without her knowledge, why Al Quaeda literature was found on her laptop, and how – if at all – her husband justified the purchase of fireworks and at least three pressure cookers?

Zlotnick suspects investigators are not entirely buying what she’s saying.

“Her claim is that she was busy supporting the family and was not home during the day and that he hid these things from her. And that’s certainly possible, but the government, I don’t think,  believes her right now, particularly because they’re concerned that she became radicalized as well over the last few years which would suggest that she perhaps shared some of his thoughts or values about the United States and about its role in the world.”

Since taking on the case two weeks ago, TV trucks have been lined up outside DeLuca and Weizenbaum’s office and they’ve been besieged with interview requests. They turn most down, limiting their client’s exposure to a few press releases proclaiming she knew nothing of her husband’s activities and was horrified by the Marathon attacks.

Attorney Tom Briody, who represented Dan Biechele – the band manager who started the Station Nightclub Fire – says it’s the same media strategy he adopted.

“It can be quite overwhelming, not only for the client but also for the office of the attorneys who are trying to represent that client,” says Briody. “You get flooded with telephone calls. You tend to come into contact with a large number of journalists all looking for the same thing or a variation on the same theme all within a very short period of time. The pressure can be fairly intense. There’s a point where it makes sense to kind of shut things down.”

Zlotnick says a media blackout also protects the client.

“I mean I think if I’m the lawyer right now I don’t just grant interviews to the media because first of all you’ll be overwhelmed by them but secondly you still don’t know what the government knows, what they think they know and this is a very aggressive investigation. This was a national tragedy and a horrific crime. And the government is going to aggressively prosecute anyone who either helped before or even helped after, even if it was simply to help a friend or family member flee or escape capture. That’s a crime. If you know they did it and helped them evade capture, you’re guilty.”

Assuming she’s cleared of any wrongdoing – and that’s an assumption at this point – what hope does North Kingstown native Katherine Russell have of resuming anything like a normal life? Horwitz, the associate dean at Roger Williams University Law School, says she may have to enter the federal witness protection program to reclaim her life. That may be overstating the case, but it’s clear that Katherine Russell’s days of anonymity are behind her.