FBI Images of Boston Bombing Suspects

Did the FBI do the right thing in releasing the photos of persons of interest in the Boston Marathon bombing? If the goal is an arrest, followed by a fair trial, guilty verdict and punishment, I don't think so. (I am intentionally not linking to the photos.)

If either one of the depicted individuals is arrested and tried for the Boston bombing, any eyewitness identifications as to their preparatory actions are bound to be challenged in court. By the time these witnesses will be asked to identify the suspects as having bought a pressure cooker or a backpack or certain kind of sports cap, the suspects' faces will be so well-known that monks living on the mountainside in Tibet would identify them if asked. [More...]

Tomorrow is the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. The FBI's release of these photos today reminds me of the FBI's actions with respect to Timothy McVeigh. From the brief I wrote in his case challenging the eyewitness identifications made after the media exposure of his perp walk and the composite sketch released to the public after the bombing:

On April 19, 1995, an explosion occurred at the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in which 168 people died, including young children. The media almost instantly pronounced the explosion to be the single largest act of terrorism on United States soil in history. The United States government responded by immediately launching the largest manhunt ever conducted in this country, led by agents of its most famous law enforcement agency: the Federal Bureau of Investigation. A two million dollar reward fund was immediately established by the United States for information resulting in the identification, arrest and conviction of the person(s) responsible. “Contact the OKBOMB Task Force via E-mail at okbomb@fbi.gov” reads the offer which is still posted on the FBI’s Internet home page.

The President of the United States and the Attorney General both appeared on television on the day of the bombing and assured the country that no effort would be spared to catch the perpetrators of this horrific crime, and that when they did, justice would be swift and the death penalty would be sought.

[Footnote: The exact words spoken by President Clinton at his White House press conference on April 19, 1995, were, “We will find the people who did this. When we do, justice will be swift, certain and severe. These people are killers and they must be treated like killers”.

Attorney General Janet Reno advised the nation in her press conference of April 19, 1995, “If death occurs, the death penalty is available and we will seek it”.]

The entire nation was riveted by both the events of the bombing and the search for those responsible. Two days later, on April 21, 1995, the country was informed by every medium in existence, including television, radio, newspaper, computer on-line news service, etc., that an individual named Timothy McVeigh had been charged with the Oklahoma City bombing.

The nation learned that Mr. McVeigh had been arrested about 90 miles from Oklahoma City, an hour and a half after the bombing, because he had not displayed a proper license tag on the vehicle he was driving. He was in custody in the Noble County jail in Oklahoma.

What the nation and indeed the world next witnessed, and continuously observed approximately every 20 minutes for days on end, on television sets in homes, businesses, offices, airports, hospital waiting rooms, and virtually every other imaginable place, was what has now come to be known as “the perp walk”: Timothy McVeigh, in an orange jump suit, wearing no apparent protection such as a bullet-proof vest, with his military-style haircut and a far-off look in his eye, shackled at the hands and feet, being led by federal agents out of the Noble County Jail, through a throng of angry watchers-on, many of whom were repeatedly shouting “Baby Killer, Baby Killer” at him.

Within hours, this event and the demonizing portrayal of Timothy McVeigh dominated every similar form of media, from print to the radio’s air waves, where vivid descriptions of this image supplanted the visuals of the other mediums.

In time, this visual demonization of Timothy McVeigh abated in frequency from what seemed like every few minutes, to hourly, then to three times a day, then daily, weekly, and monthly. Even now, almost two years after the event, the image is still more often than not flashed on the television screen when anything about the Oklahoma City bombing is aired.

All of the challenged identifications of defendant McVeigh occurred after the government’s identification witnesses had ample opportunity for repeated exposure to the demonic depiction of the singular image of Timothy McVeigh .... It is against this backdrop that all of the challenged identifications must be measured.

Trials are public events. Criminal investigations leading to charges are better kept to the confines of law enforcement. We don't live in a fairy-tale world like Alice in Wonderland where the Queen gets to say "First the punishment, then the verdict." In this country, there is a presumption of innocence for everyone suspected or charged with a crime, which remains with them until, if ever, a jury declares them guilty. The release of these photos has already, in my opinion, destroyed the presumption of innocence for the persons depicted in the photos.

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    The FBI also has quite the eyewitness (5.00 / 2) (#7)
    by Towanda on Thu Apr 18, 2013 at 10:52:57 PM EST
    in the poor young man, Jeff Bauman, whose legs were blown off, two and half minutes after he saw a guy set down a backpack next to him.

    Bauman had looked the guy straight in the eye, he says.  As soon as he woke up from surgery, he asked for paper and pen and wrote about it.  Amazingly, he was able to be interviewed by the FBI, already.

    As for the fuzzy photos, I agree; a Boston tv station posted dozens of photos, and both of these guys were in several that were more clear.

    And I wonder if the MIT shooting and lockdown tonight are related to the missing student that you write about?  By the way, in addition to the Chinese grad student who was killed in the bombing, dozens of other grad students from many campuses were among the injured (I saw a list in higher education media).

    Boston Bomb Victim (5.00 / 2) (#21)
    by jbindc on Fri Apr 19, 2013 at 08:09:09 AM EST
    Who lost both legs, ID'd the bomber from the photographs and was critical to finding these guys.

    Two Different Issues (none / 0) (#1)
    by RickyJim on Thu Apr 18, 2013 at 08:57:45 PM EST
    1. Should the pictures have been released to the public in the hope that somebody might identify the people in them?  Yes, since obviously the FBI hasn't been able to do the identification on what material they have in their files.

    2. Should there be public perp walks and photos of the people who are arrested?  Not while the investigation is going on, for the reasons given in the article.  The released pictures are not clear and would not prejudice somebody who saw them briefly while purchasing the bomb making material.

    Soldier (none / 0) (#2)
    by Cylinder on Thu Apr 18, 2013 at 09:02:01 PM EST
    I can't pretend to know where the balance is right now. What I do know is that you're a soldier and we're all better off for people like that.

    Teen stunned at portrayal as bombing suspect (none / 0) (#4)
    by MO Blue on Thu Apr 18, 2013 at 09:17:05 PM EST
    REVERE, Mass. (AP) -- A teenager said he is scared to go outside after he was portrayed on the Internet and on the front page of the New York Post as connected to the Boston Marathon bombings.

    Photos of Salah Eddin Barhoum, 17, and friend Yassine Zaime were posted on websites whose users have been scouring marathon finish line photos for suspects. The two were also on the Post's front Thursday with the headline: "Bag men: Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon."

    The Post reported later Thursday that the men weren't considered suspects, and the FBI has since identified two other men as suspects in the bombings Monday that killed three and injured more than 180.
    He was so fearful on Thursday that he ran back to the high school after a track meet when he saw a man in a car staring at him, talking into a phone, he said.

    Barhoum added he received more than 200 messages online Wednesday, with one commenter from Oregon asking: "How could you do that? Did you even think about the consequences?" link

    He ought (5.00 / 2) (#20)
    by Ga6thDem on Fri Apr 19, 2013 at 07:48:23 AM EST
    to sue the pants off of the NY Post.

    A guy who ran the Boston... (none / 0) (#5)
    by unitron on Thu Apr 18, 2013 at 10:11:16 PM EST
    ...finished just before the first bomb, then got back home to Texas in time to see the fertilizer plant explosion.

    Somebody else observed... (none / 0) (#6)
    by unitron on Thu Apr 18, 2013 at 10:13:46 PM EST
    ...that online sites like Reddit and the treehouse and others seemed to spot just about everybody with a backpack except those two guys.

    Probably because (none / 0) (#9)
    by DebFrmHell on Fri Apr 19, 2013 at 12:03:41 AM EST
    they can't see past Muslims as perpetrators in an event such as the Boston Marathon.  Took about a nanosecond for them to go after Obama.  ((Insert HUGE eyeroll))

    Not true (none / 0) (#17)
    by terraformer on Fri Apr 19, 2013 at 05:14:47 AM EST
    They found one of them almost immediately. I am more than happy to make fun of the hardly boys, but they did find the black hat one almost immediately.

    were eyewitness identification the only means (none / 0) (#8)
    by cpinva on Thu Apr 18, 2013 at 11:44:42 PM EST
    available, i would certainly agree with you. however, as you well know, in the 18 years subsequent to the oklahoma city bombing, forensic science, especially DNA analysis, has made a quantum leap forward. anyone arrested will be so for reasons well beyond simple eyewitness ID, as i've no doubt the FBI is well aware of the dangers inherent in that alone, as the basis for arrest and trial.

    In this case (none / 0) (#10)
    by DebFrmHell on Fri Apr 19, 2013 at 12:13:25 AM EST
    I think they were smart to let the pictures out for possible identification.  They had IP addy's for everyone but it is my guess that they used burner phones, most likely paid for in cash. Virtually untraceable unless paid for by credit card.

    The only IDs they would be able get is for people using their cell phones would be under contract to a phone company.  That is the way it works as I understand it.

    The one thing I don't understand is the possibility of a third bomb.  It was reported that they detonated it in the trashcan where it was found.  A reporter (female) said they had been pre-warned that there would be another explosion and that had happened.  Then it changed to some story involving water to soak it, then that there were only two bombs.

    My local news just said one suspect is in (none / 0) (#11)
    by caseyOR on Fri Apr 19, 2013 at 12:30:39 AM EST
    custody and police have surrounded a house in Watertown where the second suspect is holed up. There is gunfire at that location.

    Here is live local coverage of Watertown (none / 0) (#13)
    by caseyOR on Fri Apr 19, 2013 at 12:43:51 AM EST
    there is no confirmation the Watertown suspect (none / 0) (#14)
    by Jeralyn on Fri Apr 19, 2013 at 01:05:20 AM EST
    or the MIT shooting is related to the Marathon bombing.

    here's a screengrab (none / 0) (#15)
    by Jeralyn on Fri Apr 19, 2013 at 01:16:57 AM EST
    saying no confirmation of link between the incidents

    Update: Boston Globe reporting (none / 0) (#16)
    by Jeralyn on Fri Apr 19, 2013 at 01:29:18 AM EST
    one bombing suspect is in custody in Watertown. They are searching for the other.

    There are so many police and feds and on the scene it has to be for the bombing suspects.


    Since then, big goings on (none / 0) (#18)
    by scribe on Fri Apr 19, 2013 at 05:26:31 AM EST
    My local TV is re-broadcasting from Boston, where there has been a running gun battle, chase and manhunt going on most of the night.

    Seems like, so the media says, that after the FBI put up the two sets of pictures, the people allegedly pictured flushed, allegedly robbed a 7-11, allegedly ambushed and killed an MIT cop, allegedly carjacked an SUV in Cambridge and led into a chase in Watertown (the next town over), allegedly letting the driver go after telling him they were the Marathon bombers, allegedly got into a gunbattle with a Watertown cop, allegedly threw some improvised grenades (including out the windows of the SUV) during the chase, allegedly had some pressure-cooker bombs, etc.

    One of the alleged suspects is dead, having been shot multiple times, suffered massive blast injuries to his chest and run over.  He was brought into the hospital in cardiac arrest.  The other guy allegedly jumped back into the SUV, gunned it, and seemed to have gotten away.

    All this, leading to a lockdown and a massive door-to-door manhunt.

    And leaks are saying "they have foreign connections and may have only been in this country a year or so" with speculating pseudo-experts saying "Mumbai"....


    Sounds like that Ray Bradbury story where they televise the manhunt but obscure the face of the designated perp at the end, because it doesn't matter that they get the right guy, just A guy.  


    In terms of trial it could definitely hurt (none / 0) (#12)
    by Socraticsilence on Fri Apr 19, 2013 at 12:36:36 AM EST
    however, as with the sketch release in the OKC bombing (not the perp walk)-- I'd have to argue that  the possible imminent danger to public safety outweighs possible ID problems at trial.

    Definitely (none / 0) (#19)
    by jbindc on Fri Apr 19, 2013 at 07:38:57 AM EST
    Authorities are now saying that they released the photos in order to get these guys to move.  They also said they were identified with the big help of community policing and with the help of the community turning over photographs.