Answers in the FBI Killing of Ibragim Todashev—and More Questions

Two official inquiries start to clear up the mysterious death, but law-enforcement agencies should still turn over more information.
Reuters

At long last, the public is getting some answers about the FBI's killing of Ibragim Todashev, the 27-year-old man shot seven times last May while being questioned in his Florida apartment. The findings of the DOJ's Civil Rights Division are in this 16-page report. A 161-page report released by the Florida State Attorney can be found here. And a five-page summary of that report is here. It's important to understand the narrow scope of these investigative efforts: they concern not whether the FBI and Massachusetts State Police acted wisely, appropriately, or negligently on the night in question, but whether those present are criminally liable.

Both reports conclude that the killing occurred in self-defense and find insufficient evidence to justify any criminal charges or additional investigation of the shooting.

Ongoing interest in the incident owes in part to the FBI's suspicious behavior in its aftermath. The agency offered no official version of events and prevented a medical examiner from releasing the autopsy to the public, even as anonymous law-enforcement sources gave wildly conflicting accounts of what happened. The federal government also aggressively deported the dead man's acquaintances.

Some longstanding questions have now been answered to my satisfaction. Others remain unanswered. My initial, overall impression: These reports bolster the claims of law enforcement that officers were, in fact, acting in self-defense. But there are a lot of complicated claims to consider and evidence that has been asserted but not yet released. I'll be curious to see how the Council on American-Islamic Relations, journalists who've covered this story, and Todashev's attorney react to all this new information.

For now, some tentative reactions.

1.) After reading the reports, I still can't conceive of any justifiable reason to withhold the autopsy from the public. We should be able to access that entire document.

2.) The improbable array of gunshot wounds that Todashev suffered are more fully revealed than ever before in these reports, and can't help but seem suspicious on first read. The Florida inquiry quotes the autopsy report prepared by Dr. Gary Utz:

One projectile entered the top of the head, passed through the brain and the base of the skull. It was recovered. Three projectiles entered the back; one exited and two were recovered in the body. Two projectiles passed through the left upper arm and re-entered the left chest. An additional projectile also entered the left chest.

The shot that entered at the top of the skull as well as the ones that penetrated through Todashev's back are highly atypical of shootings carried out in self-defense.

How did that happen? Let's go to the DOJ report. In its telling, Todashev is sitting at a table, writing out a confession on paper. An FBI agent and a Massachusetts state trooper are looking on. For a split second, both of them get distracted. "The Assisting Trooper looked down at his cell phone to watch for the electronic queue that the text message had been communicated. The Agent was sitting on the folding chair reading his notes."

At that instant, Todashev attacks.

The Agent felt something strike him in the backside of the head. He was knocked from the chair. He saw Todashev run past him toward the hallway. The Agent drew his handgun. The Agent was dazed from being hit by the table and suffered a severe head laceration which later required nine staples to close. He saw Todashev through the opening above the kitchen counter and heard metal banging as if Todashev was searching for something.

Here's the same moment as the trooper saw it:

The Assisting Trooper heard a loud noise, which he later assumed to be a yell by Todashev. The Assisting Trooper saw Todashev spring up from the mattress and push the coffee table into the air. He was uncertain whether the table struck the Agent. Todashev ran toward the hallway. The Assisting Trooper yelled for his partner, the Lead Trooper, who was outside. The Assisting Trooper saw Todashev quickly move toward the kitchen, making no effort to open the front door to escape.

Todashev then rummaged around in the kitchen, apparently looking for a weapon. He found one:

The Assisting Trooper saw Todashev grab a metal utility pole from the corner next to the front door. While the Assisting Trooper attempted unsuccessfully to draw his handgun, Todashev raised the pole over his head, holding it with both hands in “a trained fighting position” as he charged at the Assisting Trooper. The Assisting Trooper raised his arms up in front of his face to block an impending blow. According to the Assisting Trooper, he expected to be 'impaled' by the pole.

Then the FBI agent saved the day:

The Assisting Trooper heard a volley of gunfire from his right. He saw the gunfire strike Todashev and Todashev fall to, or partially to, the floor, then quickly regain his footing and lunge toward the Assisting Trooper. The Assisting Trooper estimated that Todashev’s body was coming back at them at a 45 degree angle from the floor. He heard a second volley of gunfire. The Assisting Trooper saw the impact of the bullets twist Todashev’s body back and forth. He thought he heard three or four shots in each volley. The Assisting Trooper further declared that, had he been able to draw his handgun in time, he “absolutely” would have shot Todashev because the Assisting Trooper feared for his own life.

There were three or four shots in the first volley, and three or four in the second volley, for a total of seven shots. The DOJ report declares that the physical evidence is consistent with this account of events given by the trooper and the agent.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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