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Closing in on the truth in tangled Tsarnaev case

So the father of Ibragim Todashev, the workout buddy of Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, has filed a lawsuit, seeking $30 million from the FBI for the shooting death of his son.

I don't blame him. If it were my kid, I'd do the same.

There's a certain irony that a family in Russia has placed its faith in the American justice system just days after Russia's opposition leader was assassinated in the shadow of the Kremlin.

The civil suit filed by Abdulbaki Todashev is aimed at getting some answers to the murky mess that unfolded on May 22, 2013, in Ibragim Todashev's apartment in Orlando. The FBI insists agent Aaron McFarlane and a Massachusetts state trooper were attacked by Ibragim Todashev after he had confessed to helping Tamerlan Tsarnaev murder three men in Waltham in 2011. The FBI says McFarlane opened fire on Todashev, a mixed martial arts fighter who had armed himself with a broomstick, after Todashev suddenly turned violent and hurled a coffee table at him.

But, as usual, the FBI's lack of transparency has raised far more questions than it has answered. For example, the FBI has never explained why it hired McFarlane in the first place, given his checkered history with the Oakland Police Department, where he was accused of being heavy-handed and not exactly a beacon of integrity. Over 11 years, he's collected $520,761 in tax-free disability pension payments from Oakland — a disability that didn't prevent him from double-dipping at the FBI.


Even if his lawsuit doesn't get thrown out, Abdulbaki Todashev faces the prospect of years of stalling, depositions, more stalling and who knows what else before there is a chance he might learn why and how his son died in a hail of bullets on a warm night in Florida.

But there may be answers closer at hand.


On the eve of opening statements in the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, it is more than the deaths of Martin Richard, Krystle Campbell, Lingzi Lu, and MIT police officer Sean Collier that may be examined and explained in Courtroom 9 of the federal courthouse.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev may have, like his friend Ibragim Todashev, died in a hail of law enforcement fire, but he will be a proxy defendant alongside his little brother, tried from the grave.

There is absolutely no one who has sat through the two-month jury selection process who believes Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's lawyers are going to jump up on the defendant's table and insist their client is innocent. Instead, the defense wants the jury to answer a more relevant question: was Dzhokhar Tsarnaev an equal partner in the plot to kill and maim as many as possible near the finish line of the Boston Marathon?

Or, will they argue, was he just a follower, a stoner from Cambridge who got sucked into the vortex of the twisted grievance of his brother, a manipulative zealot who had demonstrated two years before those backpacks with the pressure cookers were dropped on Boylston Street that he had no hesitation to kill.

Prosecutors see this coming, which is why on Monday they argued before Judge George O'Toole that any attempt to turn this into a proxy trial of Tamerlan shouldn't be allowed during the guilt phase; that what the defense wants to do falls under the category of mitigation, of reducing Dzhokhar's culpability, which belongs in the penalty phase of the trial, a phase that seems inevitable.


David Bruck, one of Dzhokhar's lawyers, said two significant things in response. He said that we wouldn't even be having this conversation if the government wasn't so determined to put Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death and that the Marathon wouldn't have been bombed if not for Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

Whether this trial is just about what happened on Patriots Day 2013 or focuses on wider, murkier questions — about dead men in Waltham and Orlando, about leads on Tamerlan Tsarnaev not followed by the FBI long before the Marathon was bombed — is up to O'Toole.

I'm guessing O'Toole won't go there. It's not his style.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.