BOSTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) - As the top federal law enforcer in Massachusetts, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz has taken heat for being tough to a fault and coming down too hard on some defendants.
But as she builds a possible death penalty case against suspected Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, the unflinching approach that earned her opponents in the past could become a legal asset for the biggest case of her career, said attorneys who have faced off against her.
“The criticism lately has been that they’ve over-charged some people and been overly harsh,” said Peter Elikann, a Boston defense attorney. “I don’t think that’s relevant for Tsarnaev because no one is going to accuse any prosecutor of making too big a deal out of this case.”
Tsarnaev and his brother, Tamerlan, 26, are suspected of setting off bombs at the crowded finish line of the marathon on Monday, killing three people and injuring more than 170.
Tsarnaev was arrested late on Friday after a manhunt that shut down parts of Boston. He is hospitalized and under guard. His older brother died after a shootout with police.
Ortiz’s office, which is leading the investigation, has not given a firm timetable for charges. Ortiz, 57, did not respond to questions sent via a spokeswoman.
Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley told CNN on Sunday it was likely “most if not all the charges will be federal.” Tsarnaev could face murder and other state charges.
Since taking her job in 2009, Ortiz has built a varied reputation, being praised as a straight shooter by some legal opponents while others have called her a zealot.
One of Ortiz’s best-known cases to date was her prosecution of Aaron Swartz on wire fraud and hacking allegations for downloading millions of articles from an academic database.
Swartz, a 26-year-old computer prodigy, hanged himself in his Brooklyn, New York, apartment in January, prompting friends and family to partly blame Ortiz’s prosecution for his death.
Internet activists, including WikiLeaks and Kim Dotcom, circulated a petition to remove Ortiz from office in December. The petition claims she is dangerous because she “does not understand proportionality” and used overzealous charges to extort plea bargains from defendants.
Ortiz later released a statement defending her office’s handling of the difficult case as “appropriate.”
She also came under criticism for her prosecution of Tarek Mehanna, sentenced in April 2012 to more than 17 years in prison for aiding the terrorist group al Qaeda by translating Arabic messages and traveling to Yemen in search of terrorism training.
Mehanna, a U.S. citizen whose supporters attended his trial, claimed he had been trying to learn more about his heritage and went overseas looking for schools in which to study.
Ortiz was recommended for her position by Senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, both Democrats. She was nominated by President Barack Obama, and confirmed unanimously by the U.S. Senate in 2009. She is the first woman and the first Hispanic to serve as U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts.
Named by The Boston Globe as “Bostonian of the Year” in 2011, Ortiz grew up the oldest of five children in a housing project in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. She attended Adelphi University before graduating from George Washington University’s National Law Center in 1981.
She has two daughters with her first husband, who died in 2000. She married IBM executive Thomas Dolan in 2011.
She did a stint as a private trial attorney, but much of her career has been in public service. She was an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Economic Crimes Unit in Massachusetts and worked for eight years in Middlesex County as a state prosecutor.
Despite criticisms, Ortiz brought a “more reflective” style and improved morale in the U.S. Attorney’s office, where she oversees some 200 lawyers and staffers, according to Steve Huggard, a former federal prosecutor in Boston who now is a defense attorney for the Edwards Wildman law firm.
While the Tsarnaev case will bear Ortiz’s imprint, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in Washington will be calling important shots as well, said Huggard.
“It’s not going to be her doing anything by herself,” Huggard said.
Some aspects of the case have already been called into question, including the decision not to read Tsarnaev his Miranda rights when he was arrested. Instead, a public safety exception was invoked. Ortiz’s spokeswoman said she could not comment on who made that decision.
The step raised eyebrows with rights activists aware of Ortiz’s record. Harvey Silverglate, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, civil liberties lawyer, said Ortiz’s prominent role so far on the Tsarnaev matter may just be to build her profile.
“The fact that she’s front and center now is, I think, a move to enhance her public credibility.”
Still, Silverglate said, “She is a good public face for the tough response. She’s perfect for that.”
Reporting by Ross Kerber and Hilary Russ; Additional reporting by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Sandra Maler