To Catch A Bomber

How Emory Law graduate Aloke Chakravarty faced an international terrorist in federal court and won conviction

Last Word: Emory Law alumnus Aloke Chakravarty gave closing arguments at the trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokar Tsarnev.
Jane Flavell Collins

The trial of the Boston Marathon bomber ended in May, but one of its lead prosecutors, Aloke Chakravarty 97L, was still coming down from that adrenalin rush, still catching up on the life he had before.

This past fall, on a flight down to Atlanta to speak at Emory Lawís convocation, a cherished part of that life was seated beside him: his four-year-old son. For more than half his sonís life, Chakravarty was in the grips of this all-consuming trial. Although satisfied with winning a death penalty conviction in a town considered skittish about same, he felt spent.

The Unthinkable Unfolds

April 15, 2013. The Boston Globe anticipated a run like any other in the event’s 117-year history, choosing the playful headline, “Boston Marathon runners put carbs before the course.” A day later—amid destruction and uncertainty, the unknown perpetrators on the run—a new, grim reality set in for Boston, and the Globe’s headlines read: “3 killed in Marathon blasts” and “Amid shock at Marathon, a rush to help strangers.”

These are the signal facts about the event and its aftermath: At 2:49 p.m. that day, two bombs exploded twelve seconds apart near the finish line on Boylston Street. Among the three people killed was an eight-year-old boy, Martin Richard.

On April 18, Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer Sean Collier was shot and killed by the bombers. Now driving a hijacked car, they threw explosives at officers and exchanged gunfire. Eventually, firepower exhausted, the elder brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, charged police. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev ran over his brother as police tried to handcuff him, contributing to his death.

Amid an order from then-Governor Deval Patrick for citizens to “shelter in place,” hundreds of officers combed streets in Watertown in an attempt to locate Tsarnaev. On the evening of April 19, a resident went out to inspect his boat and reported seeing in it “a man covered with blood under a tarp.” The boat was named the Slip Away II.

Three days later, Tsarnaev was charged with “one count of using and conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction resulting in death and one count of malicious destruction of property by means of an explosive device resulting in death.”

Just hours into this bewildering set of circumstances, Chakravarty was doing his best to make sense of everything. He was at Tsarnaev’s bedside for the formal notification of charges against him. According to Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis, Chakravarty “was in the middle of this right from the get-go. He was at the command post every time I walked in there. I don’t think he slept at all.”

When then-Attorney General Eric Holder announced that Chakravarty and William Weinreb—both assistant US attorneys from the Anti-Terrorism and National Security Unit of the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts—would lead the prosecution, Chakravarty was mindful of all that led him to that moment.

Touching More Lives

"I was going to be a good Indian son and go to medical school,” Chakravarty said in a 2009 interview with the IndUS Business Journal. “But it didn’t quite work out that way.” Chakravarty ultimately felt that he could touch more lives as a lawyer than as a doctor.

The O. J. Simpson murder trial riveted world attention during Chakravarty’s time at Emory Law. It was precisely that environment— a high-pressure trial and media frenzy—in which he found himself during the bombing trial. “My advice to any lawyer in that position? Seize it; do the very best you can with it.”

At Emory, the doctor-candidate-turned-lawyer had thought to hold onto some vestige of his parents’ dream by going into health law. A course in trial techniques turned that tide, however. Chakravarty got such a rush from the performance aspects of it that he knew he was bound for work as a litigator.

Most memorable was a pass/fail course taught by a nonlawyer. Persuasion and Drama reminded Chakravarty that everything in the courtroom must fulfill a clear purpose and demonstrated the value of the intangibles—such as proper posture—along with effective communication. “The instructor, Kent Whipple, helped me understand how, in the artificial environment of a courtroom, where jury interaction is forbidden, one can be effective. Every day I try to honor what he taught me.”

After graduating, Chakravarty deliberately avoided more lucrative paths by beginning as an assistant district attorney in Middlesex County, then successively serving the criminal division of the Massachusetts attorney general’s office, the US Department of Justice, and the United Nations at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

Chakravarty petitioned for work as a federal prosecutor in late 2001, motivated by the 9/11 attacks. On that morning, Chakravarty could not get in touch with his fiancée, who lived across from the World Trade Center. She had taken the train away from the area mere minutes before.

He also has served in Washington as assistant general counsel at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and as attorney-adviser at the Justice Department’s Office of Intelligence Policy.

He and Weinreb were key players in the investigation of Pakistani- American Faisal Shahzad, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2010 for the attempted bombing of Times Square. The two men earned the Attorney General’s Distinguished Service Award in 2011 for their “quick response and coordination” during the investigation.

Chakravarty was the prosecutor in the case against Tarek Mehanna, a Boston pharmacist convicted of providing material support to Al Qaeda and conspiring to commit murder in a foreign country. In 2012 Mehanna was sentenced to 17.5 years in prison. Two of Mehanna’s collaborators were prosecuted in federal court in Atlanta.

Front and Center

Just two simple sentences—“You start as a runner. You finish as a Boston Marathoner”—tell the tale of how beloved the historic race is. The 2013 race attracted more than twenty-three thousand runners, many of whom were unable to finish because of the destruction. Ironically, the marathon began with twenty-six seconds of silence for the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

As Anthony Flint, a Boston-based journalist, wrote just three days after the bombing, “For this event, the city is the arena.” As to why the Tsarnaevs chose the marathon, it seemed obvious in retrospect, according to Flint: “Strike in the places where the most people are bunched together. The city is the terrorist’s friend; Mohammed Atta studied urban planning.”

Says Chakravarty, “A constellation of factors argued for why I should be on the scene. Regardless, I felt fortunate to have had productive relationships that helped build trust with others working on the case.” Those others numbered in the thousands—a combination of first responders, police, investigators, and legal team members.

Asked what flashed through his mind when he heard the news, Chakravarty recalls, “We are under attack, and I need to do something.” He was mindful that people look to lawyers for direction in upsetting circumstances and was determined that the next step, the investigation, be handled with utmost care.

“What I also found,” he continues, “was that everyone was in a silo. They were doing the discrete task in front of them. But, as a lawyer, you can step back. A lot of people defer to you because no one wants to mess anything up. I asked myself, ‘How do I marshal my whole career to give constructive advice?’ I made more decisions in that week than ever before.”

How far did the plot reach? What caused the radicalization? These key questions had import beyond the case at hand. “We had to know, because there are other people, for similar reasons, who might be contemplating the same thing.”

Making The Case

The trial arrived quickly, thanks to the judge’s efficiency. The clock’s fast ticks put even more pressure on the investigation. That phase had long arms, including an international component. Even before the bombing, questions arose about the family that sparked congressional and inspector general’s investigations. There also was a separate exploration of Tamerlan’s 2012 trip to Russia.

“It was a while,” says Chakravarty, “before we confidently could say that it was an insular group of people who carried out this plot. The investigation went around the world. In the end, we feel confident in our knowledge of how far it reached.” In any trial, he says, there is tension between trying to know everything and trying to know what you need to know. “This is a case where we tried to know everything.”

Also remarkable was the plethora of video evidence. Surveillance video, for instance, led to the identification of the brothers, who initially were known as “white hat and black hat” based on their headgear that day. And it recorded the victims’ suffering.“The video allowed anyone to see the devastation,” says Chakravarty. “I could see bodies ripped apart—children, women.”

Chakravarty used audio and video in his closing, recognizing the way that contemporary jurors consume information. With video, he observes, one doesn’t have to pound the table to get attention. “In truth,” he says, “I didn’t need to use the most graphic images.”

This was a bifurcated trial with a liability phase and a penalty phase. The trial really began in jury selection, though. “Battle lines were drawn early on,” Chakravarty says, “as the lawyers endeavored to discover whether jurors were more open to the narrative on the side of the defense or prosecution.”

Jurors in the Boston area possess a high level of civic engagement. Chakravarty describes this pool as highly educated but very practical— “a group of people who had lived life and were very diverse.”

Head To Head

There was top talent on both sides. Weinreb helped distill from the investigative phase what would happen at trial. Nadine Pellegrini, chief of their major crimes unit, demonstrated “incredible connection with the victims.” As they neared trial, they added Steven Mellin, a specialist from the capital-case unit of the Department of Justice.

Arguing for the defense were Judy Clarke and David Bruck. Clarke’s high-profile clients have included the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski; Susan Smith, who drowned her two children; Atlanta Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph; and Tucson gunman Jared Loughner. All received life sentences instead of the death penalty.

Asked what it meant to deal Clarke a losing hand, Chakravarty says, “I don’t view this as winning and losing. I view this as doing what we are sworn to do. The fact that we were going up against experienced counsel was helpful; it brought out the best in all of us.”

Tsarnaev’s guilt was never in question. His defense team conceded that fact from the start, with Clarke saying in her opening statement, “It was him.” Their intent, though, was to show that he had been brainwashed by his brother. It helped immeasurably that Tsarnaev wrote a statement during his time in the boat.

“Without it, our job would have been that much harder,” Chakravarty says. He and his team worked hard to prove to jurors which physical actions Tsarnaev took, including placing one of the two backpacks at the finish line. “We effectively showed that he had internalized the concepts and that it wasn’t simple parroting of dogma from his brother.”

A Voice For The Victims

There were more than 260 victims, seventeen of whom lost limbs. The strategy that Chakravarty and his team used throughout was straightforward: tell their story powerfully.

“The families were a huge motivator for us,” he says. “We understood that we didn’t represent them; we represented the people of the United States. But those stories about how their lives were devastated and what physically happened to them were critical during both phases of the trial.”

The victims varied in their willingness to be involved with the case. Chakravarty and his colleagues took the view that every family already had been traumatized. Thus, “There was nothing that we had to have from a certain family. We would ask, but we would never insist.” The legal team understood that, for the families, life would never be the same.

In the penalty phase, the first two prosecution witnesses were women who lost legs. One of them, Rebekah Gregory, was at the race with her five-year-old son. According to Gregory, “I remember being thrown back, hoisted into the air. My first instinct as a mother was, where in the world was my baby, where was my son?” She told the jury, “My bones were literally laying next to me on the sidewalk and blood was everywhere.” Eventually, someone put her son down next to her. Gregory had to be put in a medically induced coma as a result of the blast. She had eighteen surgeries. Her body still houses foreign objects.

The other woman, Karen Rand McWatters, watched her friend Krystle Campbell die next to her. She recalled the moment: “She very slowly said that her legs hurt, and we held hands, and shortly after that, her hand went limp in mine and she never spoke again after that.”

Chakravarty acknowledges that they could have introduced more victims but feels confident that “those we did put on captured the voices of so many. In many ways, they inspired us to put on the case we did.”

In his closing, Chakravarty sought to make the best use of the abundant real-time evidence; tell a coherent, linear narrative; and weave in his themes—Tsarnaev’s independence from his brother and the impact on the victims. He worried whether he had the “artistic qualities” to nail the closing argument.

Chakravarty spoke for eighty minutes. He had been so close to the facts for so long that, in the end, delivering the closing felt a bit surreal. He was exhausted at the end: “That tells me that I left it all out there.”

Weinreb observes that Chakravarty “never loses his cool. That is a huge plus when you are trying a high-profile case. He is normally very calm in the courtroom but can be forceful and passionate when that’s what is needed.”

For Chakravarty, the case commanded his life. He often forgot to eat. “When you try any case, you think about it all the time,” he says. “In this case, I confess, I was thinking about it even more. You are dreaming about it.” Says Weinreb, “I don’t know whether people agreed with the verdict, but most grant that the people of Boston got a complete accounting of the tragic events of that week.”

Chakravarty has gone back to cases that the Boston Marathon trial swept aside. He is doing his best to shower attention on his family. But Clarke’s team has been busy with filings.

As before, the prosecution will be ready. “To bring justice in our system might be small consolation,” says Chakravarty, “but it is all we have.” That, and subsequent marathons where Boston-strong runners can, without fear, hit their stride.

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