BOSTON — As Massachusetts' top public defender, Miriam Conrad has represented people charged with everything from drug violations to plotting to fly a remote-controlled plane full of explosives into the Pentagon.
Now she takes the highest-profile assignment in her 21 years as a public defender: representing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, accused of using a weapon of mass destruction in last week's Boston Marathon bombing that resulted in three deaths and 264 injuries. He could face the death penalty.
Conrad, 56, joined the federal public defender's office in 1992, becoming its head for Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire in 2005. She supervises 19 other defenders in the office, nearly always working on matters more mundane than the terror cases.
Still, she has experience in the area. In two other recent terrorism-related defenses, she negotiated deals in which her clients agreed to plead guilty, in one case substantially reducing the client's jail sentence. The other ended in the accused being deported but serving prison time.
When it comes to Tsarnaev's case, she may again try to strike a deal. She could seek to have the 19-year-old ethnic Chechen profess his guilt in exchange for receiving a likely lifelong prison term rather than the death penalty, lawyers said.
While Conrad will face off against the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney, Carmen Ortiz, any deal would almost certainly have to be approved by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in Washington.
U.S. authorities may be hesitant to show much leniency, with Tsarnaev and his older brother, Tamerlan, accused in the worst attack on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001. Tamerlan Tsarnaev died after a confrontation with police on Thursday.
"You're talking about far too much American blood left on the streets of the Boston Marathon to reasonably expect the attorney general of the United States to not seek the fullest maximum penalty possible under the law," said Thane Rosenbaum, a professor at Fordham University Law School in New York.
Magistrate Judge Marianne Bowler has given Conrad until May 6 to prepare a response to the initial charges. Conrad has filed a motion seeking the appointment of two additional attorneys with expertise in capital cases.
Conrad, who attended Northwestern University's journalism school in Chicago and worked at the Miami Herald before graduating from Harvard Law School in 1987, declined to be interviewed for this article.
In an interview with the Rhode Island Lawyers Weekly in 2006, Conrad said defendants need strong representation against the power of the government, and that wrong convictions tend to occur in cases that attract the most public outrage.
"If the system doesn't work in those cases, it doesn't work," she said.
In one of her two recent terrorism-related cases, Conrad defended Rezwan Ferdaus, a Massachusetts man who last year pleaded guilty to charges he had plotted to fly an explosive-laden model plane into the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol buildings.
She was also involved in the defense of Aftab Ali Khan, a Pakistani man deported from the United States in 2011 after he pleaded guilty to charges related to helping transfer almost $5,000 from sources in his native country to the man who was found guilty of trying to set off a car bomb in Times Square in 2010.
Authorities foiled the attacks in both those instances and no one was injured, which sets them apart from Tsarnaev's case. He is also expected to face additional charges in the fatal shooting of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer and a carjacking in the days after the bombing.
Conrad is up to the task of mounting a defense, colleagues said.
"She's a tenacious advocate, and she's got enormous credibility with the judges. That makes her a very effective defense lawyer," said Mark Pearlstein, a former prosecutor who is now at McDermott Will & Emery, a Boston law firm.
Another former Boston prosecutor recalls how Conrad let no claims go unchallenged in a drawn-out negotiation over which exhibits could be included in a murder case in which the two faced off.
"She's concerned with every small detail right to the end, no matter how much a lost cause," said Allison Burroughs, now at the Nutter McClennen & Fish law firm. "She never mails it in."