Civil liberties groups praised a Florida prosecutor Friday for launching an independent review of the fatal shooting of a Chechen man by a Boston FBI agent, saying they hoped he would hold government officials accountable if they are found negligent.
Jeffrey L. Ashton, the top prosecutor in Orlando, announced Thursday that he is reviewing witness and forensic evidence from the US Department of Justice’s preliminary investigation into the death of Ibragim Todashev, a friend of suspected Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
The prosecutor’s inquiry marks the first state investigation of a shooting that has been cloaked in secrecy and follows repeated calls from Todashev’s family and civil-rights groups for an independent review of the case. Until now, only the FBI and the Department of Justice, which oversees the bureau, have investigated the death.
“It’s certainly a breakthrough and something to be hopeful about that we may ultimately learn what happened,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.
Simon added that he hopes for a thorough review. “It’s not going to mean very much if it’s simply an independent set of eyes reading whatever report the FBI sends them,” he said.
Todashev, a 27-year-old ethnic Chechen, was killed May 22 in his Orlando apartment during an interrogation by the FBI, Massachusetts State Police, and other law enforcement officers. The FBI claimed he initiated a violent confrontation and that the Boston agent was injured. But unlike past shootings by agents, the bureau has released few details and barred a Florida medical examiner from releasing an autopsy report.
Conflicting news reports soon emerged and inflamed the controversy: Some said that Todashev was armed with a blade or a pole, while others said he did not have a weapon.
The FBI has said only that they were questioning Todashev in connection with the Boston Marathon bombings, which killed three people and injured more than 260 on April 15. But news reports later said Todashev was about to sign a confession implicating himself and Tsarnaev in a triple homicide in Waltham in 2011. Tamerlan Tsarnaev died in a police shoot-out days after the bombings, and his brother, Dzhokhar, is in custody facing federal charges.
Todashev’s family, the ACLU, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations have clamored for an outside investigation of the shooting with little success. The Massachusetts attorney general and Florida’s law enforcement commissioner declined to investigate, though officers from both states were at the scene. The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division has not said if it will look into the matter.
In Orlando, Ashton had previously said he would not investigate, but announced Thursday that he had changed his mind. He declined to explain why through a spokesman.
“Mr. Ashton will conduct an independent review of the circumstances surrounding the use of deadly force in this case, as he does in all cases involving use of force by a law enforcement officer resulting in death,” his office said in a statement.
The Department of Justice confirmed Friday that the department had briefed Ashton July 25 in Orlando on their shooting investigation, including witness and forensic evidence. “No conclusions or recommendations regarding the inquiry have been reached,” said department spokeswoman Dena Iverson.
Ashton’s announcement comes days after Todashev’s father arrived in Florida from Russia to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the bureau. Abdulbaki Todashev has said he does not believe his son would have attacked law enforcement and has accused the FBI of “premeditated, intentional murder.”
Also Friday, federal immigration officials mysteriously released Todashev’s former roommate, 19-year-old Tatiana Gruzdeva, and granted her permission to stay in the United States for another year. She had been jailed since May 16 for immigration violations and was ordered to return to Russia by an immigration judge, who also reports to the Department of Justice.
Todashev was a mixed-martial arts fighter who came to the United States in 2008 from Russia to study English, settling for a time in Allston and Cambridge. He won asylum that year and later married, but he also had two arrests for violent incidents, including a bloody attack on a man over a parking space a few weeks before he was killed.
Todashev’s supporters have pointed out that he had cooperated willingly with the FBI, sitting down for three interviews at their offices until the final interrogation at his home.
The Council on American-
Islamic Relations in Florida, which is aiding Todashev’s father with his lawsuit, hailed the investigation and said they hoped Ashton’s review will “shed light as to why a cooperative, unarmed Florida resident was shot multiple times during interrogation by federal agents in his home.”
“We have faith that the justice system will ensure that any wrongdoing on behalf of the agents and agencies involved will be successfully prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law to ensure no officials feel they are above the law,” the council said.
Lawyers and government officials said the state and federal investigations could lead to a reprimand or even criminal charges against the agent, though the ACLU and others have pointed out that FBI shooting investigations have almost always cleared agents of wrongdoing.
The FBI declined to comment on the state prosecutor’s review, but the bureau said its own investigation is ongoing and could take months to complete.