Officer who released Marathon bombing suspect photos relieved of duty; legal impact of photos' release unclear

Holly Bailey
Tsarnaev surrenders.
Tsarnaev surrenders. (Photo by Sgt. Sean Murphy courtesy Boston magazine)

A Massachusetts State Police sergeant was relieved of duty on Thursday after he gave graphic photos documenting the surrender of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to Boston Magazine. And the release of the photos could have an impact on the case.

Sgt. Sean Murphy, a tactical photographer for the state police, documented the capture of a bloodied Tsarnaev as he emerged from a boat parked in the backyard of a home in Watertown, Mass., on April 19—four days after the deadly bombings, which killed three and injured more than 260.

Murphy released 14 photos he took during the manhunt to Boston Magazine after being angered by the cover image of Tsarnaev on Rolling Stone magazine, which some have said depicts the bombing suspect in a softer light. The photo, which was taken from one of Tsarnaev’s social media accounts, has also been published in The New York Times and other media outlets.

Murphy told the magazine his photos, which show Tsarnaev bloodied and with the laser of a sniper rifle projected on his forehead, depict “the real Boston bomber. Not someone fluffed and buffed for the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.”

David Procopio, a spokesman for the state police, confirmed to Yahoo News that the photos Murphy released were taken while he was on duty and that their release had been “unauthorized by the department.”

“He is relieved of duty for one day and will be subject to an internal investigation,” Procopio said, adding that the police will also schedule a hearing soon to determine his future status with the department.

But Procopio declined to say whether the photos were considered evidence ahead of Tsarnaev’s trial. Last week, the bombing suspect pleaded not guilty to 30 charges related to the twin bombings, which detonated near the race’s finish line on April 15.

Defense attorneys have hinted they will challenge incriminating statements that Tsarnaev made to law enforcement officials after his arrest, in which he allegedly admitted to FBI agents that he and his older brother, Tamerlan, were behind the bombings. (Tamerlan was killed hours before his younger brother’s capture, when Dzhokhar ran over him with a car while fleeting police.)

In May, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s attorneys requested and were granted the right to begin photographing the bombing suspect while he is in federal custody—as part of what some believe will be an argument to prove he was not in the right health or mental state to answer questions from authorities after his arrest. It’s an argument that could be further bolstered by the state police images of a bloodied Tsarnaev.

“The pictures do raise questions about what condition he was in,” Robert Sheketoff, a prominent Boston defense attorney who is not involved in the case, told Yahoo News. But he added, “The reality is these photos would have been eventually handed over to the defense. It’s not like they could have kept them hidden.”

But Allison Burroughs, a Boston attorney and former federal prosecutor, suggested the photos would have a bigger impact on jury selection and could possibly help the defense if it argues to move Tsarnaev's trial out of Boston.

“The more things that potential jurors see that might cause them to form an opinion before jury selection or feel prejudiced against the defendant, the harder it is to pick a jury,” Burroughs said. “But the publicity around that Rolling Stone cover alone has already had that impact. It’s hard to say that the trooper releasing a few additional photos is giving him any more notoriety than he already had.”