Why Fish in Florida Are Affecting the Marathon Bombing Cases

Azamat Tazhayakov (L) posed with Dias Kadyrbayev and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (R) in an undated photo taken in New York.
Boston marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (right) poses with Azamat Tazhayakov (L) and Dias Kadyrbayev in an undated photo taken in New York. –REUTERS

When is a fish more than just a fish?

That’s the question the Supreme Court is angling to answer. And its pending decision is already having ripple effects on two Boston Marathon bombing related cases: On Thursday, sentencing was delayed for two men convicted of impeding the investigation.

What’s this Yates case about?

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of John Yates, a Florida commercial fisherman. In 2007, state officials boarded Yates’ boat at sea and found he had caught 72 red groupers that were smaller than the federal legal minimum. They gave Yates a citation and told him to return to land with the fish.

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But when he returned, officials found only 69 undersized grouper; three had been thrown overboard under Yates’s orders, a crewman admitted.

Alright, so he threw away three fish? They’re just fish.

Not quite. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 makes a criminal out of anyone who “destroys … any record, document, or tangible object [emphasis added] with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence the investigation.’’ The act was a response to the Enron scandal, when officials at the energy company embezzled shareholders and shredded internal documents before filing for bankruptcy in 2001.

Violators of the act can be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison.

That white-collar crime doesn’t seem to include Yates and his fish, though.

Well, prosecutors said that the three fish he threw overboard were “tangible objects’’ and so charged him under this statute. In 2011, he was found guilty and sentenced to 30 days in prison and three years of supervised release.

Whoa, he got prison time for this?

Yeah. Yates’s defense argued that while a fish is, technically, a “tangible object,’’ the statute itself is in the context of paperwork and documents, not animals. They argued that “tangible object’’ was overly broad and not the intention of the law’s wording.

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Hm. What do judges think of the case so far?

They seem to be having a good time making fishy jokes about it, if Wednesday’s oral arguments are to be judged.

Ok, so what does this have to do with the Boston Marathon bombing cases?

While accused bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has not yet faced trial, two of his friends have been convicted or pled guilty to obstruction of justice charges related to the investigation of the bombing. They were both charged under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002.

Azamat Tazhayakov was found guilty of obstruction of justice and conspiracy for removing a backpack full of fireworks from Tsarnaev’s dorm room. Another friend, Dias Kadyrbayev, pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and conspiracy in August for the same accusation.

They were charged under the same law that the fisherman violated?

Exactly. Their lawyers said there were no paper documents or computer records involved in their case, only the “tangible objects’’ of the backpack and fireworks. If the Supreme Court were to clarify the “tangible object’’ part of the law for Yates, that could have an impact on their cases.

What’s happening with those cases now?

US District Judge Douglas P. Woodlock delayed the sentencing of Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev on Thursday, The Boston Globe reports, because “it is conceivable’’ the Supreme Court’s decision on Yates could change Tazhayakov’s guilty finding and Kadyrbayev’s plea deal.

They were originally scheduled to be sentenced next week. The delay will last “at least until the Supreme Court has resolved (the case) and the parties have had an adequate opportunity to consider the implications of that resolution,’’ Woodlock wrote.

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How are those two reacting to the delay?

Their lawyers are certainly pleased.

What about Tsarnaev? Could this Supreme Court case affect him at all?

No. Tsarnaev faces 30 terrorism-related counts for allegedly setting the bombs that injured about 260 and killed 3 people, as well as a murder charge for the death of an MIT police officer. His trial remains set for January.

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