The American teen arrested with a pair of Kazakh students in connection with the Boston Marathon bomb probe is facing hard time and likely is under intense pressure to tell everything he knows, legal experts say.
Robel Phillipos, 19, who grew up in Cambridge, Mass., and went to high school with chief suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, has been charged with lying to federal investigators when being questioned about Tsarnaev's activities at UMass-Dartmouth, where they attended college.
The American-born Phillipos faces up to eight years in prison for “knowingly and willfully” making materially false statements to federal investigators — a charge that carries stiffer penalties than those faced by other two suspects arrested Wednesday, Dias Kadyrbayev and Azamat Tazhayakov. The later two each face a five-year prison term if convicted of obstruction of justice for allegedly removing items from Tsarnaev’s dorm room. Legal experts say the disparity proves the old axiom that it's not the crime, it's the cover-up.
"You can be totally innocent, but if you mislead investigators in any way, whether intentional or not, the penalties are harsh,” Neil Wollerstein, a New York-based criminal defense and civil rights attorney, told FoxNews.com. Investigators "are certainly going to use it as leverage for more information.”
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Facing harsh penalties, Phillipos could be asked to provide more information to investigators in exchange for a reduced sentence.
“It’s an excellent law enforcement tactic to get the suspect to cooperate,” Wollerstein added. “If this guy intentionally misled the investigation, the question is raised. …What did he know before or at the time of the bombing?”
Other legal experts agree that a deal could be brokered with Phillipos.
“Don’t forget, this is just a complaint. It’s kind of a placeholder to get them arrested,” Fox News legal analyst Lis Wiehl said Thursday during "On The Hunt" on FoxNews.com Live
Tsarnaev and his older brother, Tamerlan, who was killed in a police shootout days after the April 15 attack, are suspected of setting two bombs, at least one of which was made form a pressure cooker stuffed with gunpowder and shrapnel, near the finish line of the marathon.
All three of the students arrested Wednesday allegedly knew about or conspired to get rid of a backpack full of hollowed-out fireworks that belonged to Tsarnaev, after seeing him identified on the news as the FBI's suspect.
In addition to attending high school and college with Tsarnaev, Phillipos reportedly lived next to the gas station where the bombing suspects’ carjacked a getaway vehicle after their photos were released to the public.
Neighbors of Phillipos described him as quiet, “nice boy” and “very nice kid” in recent reports, which also say that he was part of the Cambridge Kids’ Council, an outreach and policy program chaired by the city’s mayor.
In a video posted on YouTube, Phillipos, a U.S. citizen whose mother is an Ethiopian national, describes himself as a “regular guy” who has traveled.
“I’ve gone to Africa, seen depths of hell,” he said on the video while speaking about his travels.
He also vowed to be generous with money, if he ever acquires it.
“I can see myself giving a lot of money, I actually want help him or her to open some doors for them, get help for that person to get an education,” he said.
Despite a squeaky-clean record, the charges against Phillipos are serious.
“At some point you have to wonder what all three of them truly know,” Wollerstein said. Investigators could "try to divide and conquer. Get (Phillipos) to provide information on the other two," he said. "They really just need one person.”
“People need to realize they are not the ones who committed the bombing,” he added. “But the prosecutors are trying to wheel in anybody to see how far-reaching this conspiracy has gone and how far the tentacles of it reach.”