Boston Scare Case Could Be Hard to Prove
Friday, February 2, 2007; 6:31 PM
BOSTON -- Some legal experts say prosecutors will have a hard time proving that two men intended to cause a scare when they planted blinking electronic devices around Boston in a publicity stunt for a cartoon show.
They say the key difficulties prosecutors face are demonstrating that the men intended to cause fear, and that the devices, which depict a cartoon character, looked dangerous. The state must prove both to win felony convictions for placing a hoax device, the experts said.
"Their intent was to place these devices as part of an admittedly idiotic advertising campaign," said defense attorney Edward P. Ryan Jr., a former president of the Massachusetts Bar Association. "Just because people got scared doesn't mean there was intent."
Peter Berdovsky, 27, and Sean Stevens, 28, were paid to place the devices to promote a television show on the Turner Broadcasting System subsidiary Cartoon Network, and even took videos documenting their work.
David White-Lief, the state bar's president-elect and a Boston lawyer, said the lighted boxes probably do not meet the state statute's definition of a hoax device, which must resemble an "infernal machine." He interprets that description to mean something that looks like dynamite or a Molotov cocktail.
But the devices in Boston, which displayed a boxy-looking cartoon character giving the finger, "looked like toys," White-Lief said.
More than three dozen electronic signs were placed in high-profile spots in Boston weeks before authorities responded Wednesday. Authorities shut down highways, bridges and river traffic while bomb squads checked out devices that turned out to be harmless. There was barely a stir in nine other cities across the country where similar devices were placed.
Berdovsky and Stevens pleaded not guilty Thursday and were released on $2,500 bail. They face up to five years in prison if convicted.
At the arraignment, Assistant Attorney General John Grossman focused on a device that had been placed on a highway support beam, saying police believed it might have been a bomb because it contained a cylinder wrapped in duct tape, a power source and a circuit board.
"It's clear the intent was to get attention by causing fear and unrest that there was a bomb in that location," Grossman said.
But White-Lief said the only intent was to get people to watch a cartoon.
"What they did, I imagine, in their minds, was no different than a guy who wallpapers ads for the circus on a vacant building," he said.
White-Lief said it could also prove difficult to win convictions on a second count the men face, misdemeanor disorderly conduct, which is generally related to an immediate annoyance or threat. But the devices were in place for a couple of weeks before police were notified.
Critics have mocked Boston for overreacting.
"If they were bombs, at that response rate, the city would have been screwed," said Norajean McCarthy, 24, a friend of both suspects.
Safety officials, however, have praised the response as evidence of the city's ability to respond quickly to a crisis.
"The coordinated response by all departments proves the system we have in place works," Mayor Thomas Menino said.
During a visit to Providence, R.I., Friday, Homeland Security's Undersecretary for Preparedness George Foresman said Boston officials conducted "a very seamless and coordinated response."
Menino has estimated the costs of the publicity stunt in Boston alone to be more than $500,000, while the costs for the local transit system and the cities of Cambridge and Somerville could be another $500,000.
Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley said Friday that her office was negotiating a restitution deal with Turner and the New York-based marketing firm hired for the campaign, as well as local authorities.
Turner Broadcasting, a unit of Time Warner Inc., apologized to Boston-area residents in full page newspaper ads Friday, with Turner's chairman and CEO expressing regret for "the confusion and inconvenience."
Also Friday, the chief executive of the marketing firm issued an apology. Sam Ewen of Interference Inc. apologized "to the people of Boston and the authorities for this incredibly unfortunate incident."
The attorney general also said discussions had begun with attorneys for Berdovsky and Stevens about "a resolution to the criminal charges."
All the parties planned to meet again Monday, she said.
Associated Press writers Justin M. Norton in Providence, R.I., and Denise Lavoie and Jay Lindsay in Boston contributed to this report.