What sort of person worries that a man accused of bombing hundreds of innocent civilians is being treated unfairly, or questions whether law enforcement police interrogators are trampling his constitutional rights?
Meet Miriam Conrad, the 56-year-old veteran federal public defender who may have become America’s most reviled lawyer last week when she agreed to represent Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the nation’s most infamous criminal defendant.
Since 2005, Conrad has been chief of Boston’s Federal Public Defender’s Office, which represents indigents accused of federal crimes in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island. And this isn’t the first time she’s faced federal prosecutors in a high-profile terror case; her previous clients include convicted shoe-bomber Richard Reid and Rezwan Ferdaus, a U.S. citizen serving 17 years for his role in a 2011 plot to bomb the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol with remote-controlled model airplanes.
Critics in the shallow end of the blogosphere deride Conrad as an enemy combatant, a terrorist sympathizer and a traitor to the police and federal agents who risked their lives to capture her client.
But if you were paying attention during your high school civics class, you might recognize her as another sort of first responder — a woman who was defending the same values and incurring the same risks as her law enforcement counterparts when she appeared at Tsarnaev’s bedside last week to seek a federal magistrate’s assurance that her client’s rights would be protected.
“Your honor, may I inquire about access to counsel?” Conrad asked during the extraordinary arraignment hearing at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
Two federal prosecutors in attendance quickly assured the magistrate that Conrad and her colleagues in the federal public defender’s office would be able to talk to their client regularly as the government’s investigation proceeds.
I met Conrad in the early 1980s when we were both rookie reporters in the Miami Herald’s Ft. Lauderdale newsroom. I recall a tiny, funny and fiercely intelligent woman — the sort that patronizing male colleagues might call spunky before they became acquainted with Conrad’s startlingly powerful rabbit punch.
“She was a real street journalist, and smarter than the rest of us,” recalls Ernie Torriero, a Voice of America editor who worked with Conrad at the Herald and later at the Kansas City Times. Christine Spolar, an editor for London’s Financial Times who attended Northwestern University with Conrad and has remained a close friend for 35 years, remembers an analytical journalist who “loved to explore the whys and what-ifs” and worried perpetually that she had overlooked some critical witness to the story she was trying to tell.
Conrad was on her way home from a party at my apartment one night in 1982 when her car struck a median that the Florida Highway Department had installed days earlier with no notice to motorists.
There followed repeated surgeries to repair her shattered ankle, months of litigation and eventually a modest insurance settlement. Conrad used the settlement money to finance her first two years at Harvard Law School, graduating in 1987.
After clerking for a federal judge, she took a job in the state Public Defender’s Office. She has been representing defendants too poor to hire their own lawyers ever since.
In a friendly but circumspect phone conversation last week, Conrad declined to discuss any aspect of the Boston bombing case, including her immediate reaction to the attack or the circumstances in which she learned that her office would be handling Tsarnaev’s defense.
“It’s awkward for a former journalist,” she said apologetically, “but I’m doing my best to maintain complete radio silence.”
But in less charged circumstances, she has spoken candidly about the satisfaction she derives from representing those whom others consider pariahs, even when the crimes they’re accused of chill her soul.
“There are very few clients I’ve had who I didn’t like,” she told an interviewer from the Rhode Island Lawyers Weekly. “If you scratch the surface, many have had difficult lives, and as their lawyer, I sort of see them whole, not just as a person charged with a crime.
“No one has ever stood up for them, and that’s a very powerful, very emotional thing.”
All the same, colleagues chuckle at any suggestion that Conrad is a bleeding heart who sympathizes reflexively with her clients’ hostility toward law enforcement.
“If you know Miriam,” said one, “you know that no one in Boston is angrier about what happened at the marathon.”
In 22 years as a federal defender, Conrad has collected friends and admirers in every federal circuit. But few understand the challenges she confronts in the Boston bombing case as acutely as her friend and counterpart in Detroit’s Community Defender’s Office.
Miriam Siefer, the chief federal defender for the Eastern District of Michigan, was the lawyer on call on Christmas 2009 when 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit with explosives hidden in his underwear. In a conversation last week, Siefer recalled that, like Conrad, she first encountered the terrorism suspect she had been tapped to defend in a hospital room, where Abdulmutallab lay manacled to his bed.
Siefer, who exchanged text messages with Conrad the day Tsarnaev was arraigned, said the Tsarnaev defense team’s job will be complicated by the international news media coverage of the Boston bombings.
“Ideally, a lawyer wants to interview key witnesses before anyone else does,” Siefer noted. “In a case like this, you’ve got reporters fanning out all over the world talking to family members and anyone else who’s even remotely connected with the suspect.”
Public hostility poses additional burdens, Siefer said, noting that she and her colleagues took additional security precautions in the days after she was appointed Abdulmutallab’s lawyer. But that comes with the territory, she added.
In fact, the tradition of distinguished lawyers providing a vigorous defense to terrorism suspects dates to at least 1770, when a future U.S. president named John Adams, then a Boston attorney enraged at his city’s occupation by British troops, agreed to represent a group of British soldiers accused of murdering five American civilians.
Adams, who was initially ostracized by his neighbors, called his defense of the accused killers “one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country.” In the end, seven of the nine defendants were acquitted outright, and two were convicted on lesser charges of manslaughter.
“This is what we wanted to do,” Siefer said of the thankless burden Conrad has taken up. “We’re in this work because we believe that, without a truly adversarial system, there is no credibility.”