April 24, 2013— -- Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev managed to say just one word to a federal judge when charges were filed against him in a makeshift courtroom held at the side of his hospital bed, "No."
No, he could not afford an attorney.
As a result, Tsarnaev, 19, who is facing the possibility of the death penalty for his alleged role in last week's terror attack, will be represented by one of the most experienced and well respected public defenders in the country, Miriam Conrad.
Conrad heads the Federal Public Defender Office in Boston and her resume includes defending "shoe bomber" Richard Reid in 2001 for trying to blow up a Paris to Miami jetliner.
"She is excellent, tough, tenacious and wise," said Tamar R. Birckhead, now a University of North Carolina law professor who worked with Conrad for four years, including on the Reid case.
Tsarnaev is charged with detonating a weapon of mass destruction and maliciously destroying public property, capital offenses that carry the death penalty. He is currently in the hospital being treated for wounds sustained in a shootout with police last week prior to his capture.
Conrad and several other attorneys from her office were listed in court documents as the team representing Tsarnaev. Among them was William S. Fick, who was present at Monday's hearing held inside Tsarnaev's hospital room. Fick requested additional help from attorneys who have previously handled death penalty cases, a requirement under federal law.
Conrad and her team have a difficult case ahead of them. They are trying to keep alive someone many would consider to be the most hated man in America. Their client is bedridden and barely able to communicate. Facing budget cuts as a result of the federal sequester, they are up against the U.S. Attorney and FBI that have made Tsarnaev's prosecution a top priority.
"It's a David and Goliath situation," said Birckhead, "There's an assumption that the defendant is guilty, and should be immediately executed. All of that is a tough road to travel."
On top of investigating and building their defense, Conrad and her team also have to deal with the routine threats and taunts that come along with standing up for someone reviled for allegedly bombing innocent people, including children.
"In general, it's a very difficult job," said Nancy Gertner, a judge and Harvard law professor. "Public defenders have to represent whoever comes in the door. Sometimes it's a sympathetic defendant, but sometimes it's an unsympathetic defendant, and Dzhokhar is as unsympathetic as they come. The public doesn't understand that the system works better when defense lawyers work their hearts out."
Conrad, 56, has led the Federal Public Defender's Office since 2005. A graduate of Harvard Law School, she has defended a number of high profile terrorism cases.
In addition to defending Reid, Conrad represented represented Rezwan Ferdaus, a U.S. citizen of Bangladeshi ancestry who was sentenced to 17 years after he was found guilty of plotting an attack on the Capitol Building and the Pentagon.
Fick, an assistant in the office, is a graduate of Yale Law, who turned down an offer on Wall Street to become a public defender.
"This is a high quality team," said Gertner, for whom Fick worked as a clerk. "It puts to lie the notion that public defenders are lesser lawyers. This is an enormously talented group."
Tsarnaev's defense team has likely already began its own investigation, but part of their defense will likely be looking for mitigating evidence, clues that explain Tsarnaev's frame of mind.
"They are going to investigate Dzhokhar's background and childhood, [and] the relationship with his brother. Was he acting under duress? What was his mental state? They'll make sure he's given psychiatric exams," Birckhead said.
Calls to the defender office for comment were not returned.