Robel Phillipos False Statement Charge Could Have Been Avoided

May 1, 2013  •  Jerod Gunsberg, Los Angeles Criminal Defense Lawyer

By now you probably heard that three more people were charged in connection with the Boston Marathon bombing.  As Huffington Post reports:

Federal prosecutors allege that Dias Kadyrbayev, 19, and Azamat Tazbayakov, 19, tried to conceal and destroy a laptop computer and backpack full of fireworks belonging to Tsarnaev, a friend from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where all three were students at one time. They were charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Massachusetts.

A third man, Robel Phillipos, 19, was accused of lying to law enforcement officials, who questioned him about the bombing.

According the federal complaint filed against Phillipos, he initially told investigators that he never went to alleged bomber Dzokhar Tsarnaev’s dorm room after the bombings.  He later told federal agents that he lied to them earlier and that he actually had gone to Tsarnaev’s dorm room. 

So, you may be thinking what’s the big deal?  This is a 19 year old kid who was scared, he was friends with Tsarnaev, but wasn’t involved in the planning of the bombing, didn’t know about Tsarnaev’s involvement until after the photos were released, and when the FBI started to question him about whether or not he had contact with Tsarnaev after the bombing, he got scared and lied.  After some more questioning, he told the truth.

I agree with you. Unfortunately, that’s not the way the government or the law sees it.  Under 18 USC 1001(a)(2) , Phillipos is accused of making a “materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation” to the federal agents during questioning. It does not matter if he was under arrest or whether or not his Miranda rights were invoked, the government believes he lied.  He’s facing a maximum sentence of 8 years in federal prison.  Usually the maximum penalty for this offense is 5 years in federal prison, but because this involves a terrorism investigation, the maximum imprisonment is increased to 8 years.

What is so sad about this is that this all could have been avoidedThe feds didn’t charge Phillipos with any other crime other than lying to the FBI. That means if he had an experienced federal investigation defense attorney representing him BEFORE he talked to the FBI, all of this could have been avoided.

It’s likely that the FBI initially believed that Phillipos was involved in the destruction of the evidence, which he wasn’t  but if he wanted to give an exculpatory statement, his lawyer very well could have advised his client not to lie or possibly negotiated a limited immunity agreement with the federal prosecutor on the case.  Of course, this is easier said than done in a case as serious and high-profile as the Boston bombing case.  The federal government wants as much leverage as possible over anyone they believe to be involved with the attack, but a scared young man like Phillipos didn’t stand a chance on his own when faced with highly trained and highly skilled FBI agents in this case.

Moral of the story:  Even if you are 100% innocent, never talk to federal investigators without talking to an attorney first.

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