A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in an unrelated case involving a Florida fisherman could have an impact on criminal cases brought against friends of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, defense lawyers said Wednesday.
In November, a federal judge postponed sentencing for Azamat Tazhayakov and Dias Kadyrbayev, saying the case before the high court could define what is considered “tangible” evidence under an obstruction of justice law that was passed in the wake of the Enron scandal.
In a 5-4 ruling Wednesday, the justices threw out the conviction of John Yates, a commercial fishing boat captain who was convicted of getting rid of fish he caught that were under the minimum legal size permitted in the Gulf of Mexico.
Yates was charged under an anti-shredding provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which prohibits knowingly altering or destroying “any record, document, or tangible object” with the intent to obstruct a federal investigation. He argued that the law was aimed at the destruction of financial documents — not fish.
In the cases stemming from the Boston Marathon bombing investigation, Tazhayakov was found guilty and Kadyrbayev pleaded guilty to an obstruction charge for removing a backpack from Tsarnaev’s dorm room and then disposing of it.
Messages left Wednesday by The Associated Press for attorneys for Tazhayakov and Kadyrbadyev were not immediately returned.
Tazhayakov’s attorney, Nicholas Wooldridge, told The Boston Globe that he believed his client’s conviction could be thrown out as a result of the high court’s ruling.
A third Tsarnaev friend, Robel Phillipos, also is awaiting sentencing after being convicted in October of lying to the FBI about being present in Tsarnaev’s dorm room when the two other friends removed the backpack.
Phillipos’ lawyers, Susan Church and Derege Demissie, said in a statement Wednesday that they were also reviewing the implications of the Yates decision but felt it would have “significant bearing” on their client’s case and raised issues to be considered at sentencing.
Jury selection is underway for the federal trial of Tsarnaev, who faces charges in the April 2013 bombing that killed three people and injured more than 260 others. He could face the death penalty if convicted.