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.

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.

Some parts of the story seem more plausible to me than others.

There are photos of the FBI agent's head injury. I can accept that Todashev ran and grabbed a lightweight metal pole from the kitchen corner, that he charged the trooper in a menacing way, and that the FBI agent fired a volley of three or four shots. I can even accept that after taking three bullets, Todashev lunged up toward them at a 45-degree angle, which could explain the bullet that entered through the top of his skull. But there are a couple of things about this story that I find harder to accept.

a.) The shots that entered through Todashev's back and exited through or lodged in his chest. According to the report:

... two of the wounds that form the second pattern, one to the crown of the left side of the head and the other to the top of the left shoulder—both with an extreme downward trajectory—are consistent with the Assisting Trooper’s account that Todashev was shot with a second volley, after he had fallen down, regained his footing, and lunged at the trooper at an approximately 45 degree angle. The medical examiners further supported this inference by their observation that those two wounds could “likely” have occurred when Todashev was “falling.”
It is a fair inference that a body could be at a 45 degree angle to the ground both when it is falling as well as when rising. Finally, the two entry wounds to the back—with a much less extreme downward trajectory angle—are consistent with the Assisting Trooper’s observation that Todashev’s body was twisting around as he was shot and fell, thus striking him in the back. The medical examiners further observed that those two wounds could “likely” have occurred as Todashev was twisting his body.

Maybe this is just a failure of my imagination, but charging them with a pole, his body wouldn't be twisting enough to be shot through the front and back in the same volley; and if he's lunging up at them at a 45-degree angle, such that one shot goes into the top of his skull and straight down, wouldn't relatively straight shots entering back and exiting chest be more consistent with having shot him through the back after he's down than extreme twisting as he lunged and/or got shot in the head?

I just can't picture the back shots as explained in this scenario.

b.) I find it much easier to justify the first volley of shots than the second. A trained fighter facing jail who takes you by surprise and rushes you with a pole? That sounds like a situation where it could be reasonable to fear for your life. But once Todashev had been shot at least three times and crumpled to the floor, was he really going to successfully get up and kill two armed law-enforcement dudes using a hollow five-foot pole likened to a broomstick? Note that even after his purported lunge the forensic analysis still put him at least several feet away from the gunshot that killed him.

Couldn't he have been incapacitated without being killed, assuming it's the second volley of shots that killed him?

3.) I'd like to see that "utility pole" or broomstick or whatever it is. That would help me to judge how real the danger was. But the reports do include two details that plausibly explain at least some of the wildly different initial accounts of what object Todashev had. There was a decorative sword in the house; one of the law-enforcement guys moved it to a hiding spot by the door. Later, it's easy to see how someone coming into the chaotic crime scene could see the sword out of place, get the wrong idea, and end up passing on bad information that quickly made its way into the press. Similarly, Todashev's body wound up collapsing on top of the broomstick or utility pole, making it harder for folks to discern what exactly the object was.

4.) According to the reports, Todashev signed a Miranda waiver, and there are audio recordings of the majority of his interrogation and confession. That would seem to corroborate law-enforcement claims that he was involved in a Massachusetts triple murder, and that he had a motive to attack his interrogators—or at least it would if we were allowed to hear the recordings. Law enforcement wants the details of the confession kept secret while the murder investigation drags on.

5. I wonder if law-enforcement sources are deliberately creating the impression that Todashev was more involved in the triple murder than will turn out to be the case. Some press accounts make it sound like his involvement was that he helped commit the murders. The two reports suggest that he "implicated himself" in the murders, and that he began to write a note "detailing his involvement." What does that mean? As I looked more closely at all the relevant language, I realized the vague characterizations are consistent with anything from Todashev using his own hands to commit three murders ... to having sold the murderer an illegal gun ... to giving him a ride, thinking they're going to egg a house, only to unwittingly become complicit in murder.

Perhaps we'll eventually learn more about what "his involvement" actually was. I suspect he was confessing to something substantially less than triple murder. After all, he was confessing voluntarily, and Todashev also reportedly said things like, “Like I said, I didn’t kill nobody and I need your help,” and "if I tell you my involvement, is there any chance ... you need me to testify?" as well as, "After I tell you, are you going to take me to jail right away? How much time will I get?" Murder three people, you already know how much time you'll get: as long as you live in prison.

This had to be some lesser crime to make sense of that quote.

6. Here's a text sent from inside the apartment. "Be on guard. He is in vulnerable position to do something bad. Be on guard now. I see him looking around at times ..." Isn't that a weird text? So needlessly long and repetitive. Who texts like that? Especially when you're nervous about the guy you're supposed to be paying attention to?

7. As the Boston Globe notes, "The Florida medical examiner’s office indicated in its own report that there was more than one shooter. However, the possibility of there having been more than one shooter was disputed by the FBI as well as the Florida state attorney’s office." There was also some weirdness surrounding the seventh bullet, which was moved in the course of the investigation before being photographed.

There's more to the report, but that's enough for now. Perhaps I'll return to the subject after taking in what other observers think. There are a lot of details to ponder.