Criminal defense attorneys have long objected to “experts” produced at trials by the Justice Department who often seem to closely follow trial theories rather than scientific or forensic data. I have handled cases where experts used by the Justice Department gave almost laughable testimony filled with errors in national security cases but courts continue to admit their testimony. This week, one such expert, FBI Special Agent Steven Kimball, fell apart on the stand when confronted with clearly conclusions over basic and easily ascertainable facts.
Tsarnaev’s defence attorney Miriam Conrad for example noted that the FBI identified a picture sent on the twitter account of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as a picture of Mecca. This led to this exchange:
Conrad: “You said the picture [that forms the background of the second account] was a picture of Mecca.”
Kimbell: “Yes, to the best of my knowledge.”
Conrad: “Did you bother to look at a picture of Mecca?”
Conrad: “Would it surprise you to learn that it is a picture of Grozny?”
Unfortunately, he might not be surprised at all given the loose standards imposed on such expert testimony.
Kimball was also forced to admit that highly incriminating tweets isolated by the Justice Department were actually quotes from pop songs, including a tweet referring to “I shall die young.” Kimball said that he was unaware that these were quotes from songs. Kimball admitted that he did not even click on some links in tweets cited by the government as incriminating. One of the links would have taken the reader to a song with the line “I shall die young.”
Kimball was also confronted by the fact that the FBI had isolated lines that were actually jokes form Comedy Central and various comedians. One could of course forgive an FBI agent for having a limited knowledge of humor sites. However, Kimball also misidentified a quote as having been made by the al Qaida-affiliated cleric Anwar al-Awlaki when it was really a quote from the Qu’ran.
Among the other examples was the highly incriminating use of the term “mad cooked” in tweets that was raised by Kimball. Kimball admitted on cross examination that he was entirely ignorant of the fact that this slang means “high” after he tried to guess that it might mean “Crazy.”
In the end, it was the testimony that seemed cooked. It was a great cross examination by Conrad, but it is unfortunately not unique.
The exaggeration of such evidence reflects the real issue at trial — death. The defense has already admitted that Tsarnaev carried out the attack. The issue is only the penalty and whether a single juror can be convinced that Tsarnaev was under the influence of his older, more radical brother. The misrepresentation of this evidence was intended to portray Tsarnaev as a dedicated terrorist and extremist like his brother. Instead, it seriously undermined the credibility of the prosecution before the jury in what was an extremely strong case for the death penalty.