In choosing to charge Tsarnaev with using a “weapon of mass destruction,” the surviving Boston Marathon bombing suspect falls under an infrequently used, but widely interpreted terrorism statute. Just 25 of all domestic terrorism cases since 2001 have involved a WMD charge. Yet the penalty has been leveled at an infamous group of confirmed and would-be terrorists, including September 11’s “20th hijacker,” Zacarias Moussaoui, shoe bomber Richard Reid, and Najibullah Zazi, the individual who plotted to plant bombs in the New York City subway system.
Almost all terrorism trials since 2001, whether of domestic or international defendants, have also ended in convictions. In fact, with a conviction rate of nearly 90 percent, it is almost certain that if Tsarnaev’s case continues to the jury stage, he will be found guilty. That it will reach that point, however, is itself not guaranteed: Some two-thirds of all terrorism cases have ended in guilty plea agreements. While this is lower than the overall percentage of federal cases that end in plea agreements, coupled with the strong case against him, it suggests that the Tsarnaev trial may at least be very short.
The more interesting question in this case is what will become of Tsarnaev after his trial is completed, and what his story might mean for US counterterrorism efforts going forward. Much of the conversation since Tsarnaev was formally charged has questioned whether he will get the death penalty if he is convicted.