Boston Terror Stirs Beltway Memories


The fear and anger in Boston churned for five days last week before extraordinary law-enforcement cooperation delivered one suspect to the morgue and another to a critical-care unit.  Ten years ago, the “D.C. Sniper” case terrorized the nation’s capital and its two neighboring states for three weeks, and was finally solved despite festering dysfunctions in law enforcement.

In the Boston manhunt, cooperation among the myriad agencies involved — from the highest levels of the Department of Justice to the subway cops of the local transit police — was seamless.  Over 100 top representatives of federal, state and local jurisdictions worked elbow-to-elbow at a command center cobbled together in a hotel ballroom.  They shared intelligence, mapped their next moves, bridged gaps in both information and manpower.

There were no glory hounds in Boston.  Huge egos — and a look at the cast of characters leaves no doubt about the ego sizes involved — were sublimated to the job at hand.  Governor Deval Patrick, Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis, U. S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz and State Police Colonel Timothy Alben were among the unshrinking violets involved.

But there was no jostling for position at the microphone banks, no war of press releases.  The officials parading before cameras in the Friday night press conference wrapping up the manhunt took pains to thank and praise their law enforcement colleagues; no one took any unseemly bows.

Contrast that with the search for the DC snipers. There was acrimony and back-biting at almost every meeting of law enforcement officials. The hardheaded and headline-grabbing leader of a suburban Maryland police department, Chief Charles Moose of Montgomery County, became the public face of an investigation marred by communication failures and mistrust.

Even after the sniper suspects were captured, official jockeying for position continued.  John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo were arrested in Maryland, but jurisdictions in Virginia, Alabama and the District of Columbia also had murder claims to prosecute.  Availability of the death penalty would become the deciding factor.

U. S. Attorney General John Ashcroft wrested the case away from prosecutors in Maryland, where capital punishment was rarely meted out, and moved it to Virginia, which has a history of applying it often and swiftly.  “It is imperative that the ultimate sanction be available for those who have committed these crimes,” Ashcroft said.  Muhammed was condemned to death by a Virginia jury and executed; Malvo was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Fast-forward to this weekend.  Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), who can always be counted on to get to cameras well ahead of the pack, appeared on CNN to urge that Dzhokar Tsarnaev, the suspect arrested Friday, be moved from intensive care, should he survive, to a federal courtroom where he would face the death penalty.  “Given the facts that I’ve seen, it would be appropriate to use the death penalty in this case,” Schumer said.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which had a valid claim to prosecute Tsarnaev, does not have capital punishment.  State officials deferred to U.S. Attorney Ortiz, who had been a part of the command center team from the beginning. She moved quickly to arraign Tsarnaev in his hospital room on federal charges that could bring the death penalty.

The arrests in the Boston case were relatively swift, while the rampage of the D.C. snipers continued for weeks. There were enormous differences between the two cases — but it’s hard to believe that the levels of law enforcement cooperation and mutual trust didn’t affect the timetables of each one.


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