A federal judge has postponed the sentencing of two friends of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev because their cases could be affected by a U.S. Supreme Court case that is expected to define what can be considered "tangible" evidence under an obstruction of justice law.
The high court heard oral arguments Wednesday in a case that could influence the cases of Azamat Tazhayakov and Dias Kadyrbayev.
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.
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U.S. District Judge Douglas Woodlock said in his decision Thursday "it is conceivable" that the Supreme Court's definition of what can be considered "tangible" evidence could challenge the indictments of the Kazakhstan natives.
Woodlock said it would be wise to delay the sentencing, originally scheduled for next week, "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's order was first reported by The Boston Globe.
The case before the Supreme Court involves Florida fisherman John Yates, who was charged with obstruction of justice for destroying evidence — throwing undersize fish back into the Gulf of Mexico. Federal prosecutors charged Yates under an obstruction of justice law that grew out of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which prohibits knowingly altering or destroying "any record, document, or tangible object" with the intent to obstruct an investigation. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act, a law meant to tackle corporate fraud, was passed in response to the shredding of documents in the Enron accounting scandal.
In arguments before the Supreme Court, Yates' attorneys argued that a "tangible object" under the law only means items used to preserve information, such as computers or other storage devices.
Lawyers for Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev also argue that there are no paper documents or computer records in their cases. Tsarnaev's backpack contained a thumb drive, but there was no evidence presented during the trial that he knew about it.
The jury acquitted Tazhayakov of taking Tsarnaev's computer from his dorm room.
But the two men were convicted of removing Tsarnaev's backpack, which contained opened fireworks.
If the Supreme Court rules that the tangible objects under the law refer only to documents or devices that can store documents such as computers and thumb drives, it could affect the Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev cases.
Prosecutors say the law can be applied more broadly.
"The government believes the definition of 'tangible object' in (the law) encompasses digital storage devices such as the laptop computer and thumb drive as well as the other items charged in the indictment, including the backpack, fireworks and jar of Vaseline," prosecutors wrote in a court filing in the Tazhayakov case in July.
Kadyrbayev's attorney, Robert Stahl, said the legislative history of the law suggests that Congress was referring to documents and devices that can store documents and did not intend it to apply to all tangible objects.
"The whole issue before the Supreme Court is, does that statute cover only documentary evidence or is it broad enough to cover something like — in our particular case — a backpack," Stahl said.
"The Supreme Court will decide it, and we'll see whether it applies to our case."