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Reports on Todashev killing reveal mistakes by FBI, Mass. troopers

From the standpoint of criminal liability, two reports released Tuesday exonerated an FBI agent in the fatal shooting of Ibragim Todashev last year. But the reports don’t demonstrate that the agent and two Massachusetts state troopers at the scene acted wisely that night. The killing of Todashev, a friend of suspected Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, cost investigators what may have been a crucial link, a witness who might have been able to answer questions about Tsarnaev and help solve a 2011 triple murder in Waltham that seems to have involved both men. The reports indicate that the agent’s split-second decision to open fire on a charging Todashev was understandable — but the series of decisions leading up to that point are not.

The first report, by Florida State Attorney Jeffrey L. Ashton, cleared all three law enforcement officials of criminal charges in the 27-year-old’s death, ruling that the FBI agent shot in self-defense. The three had come to interview Todashev on May 21, 2013, at an apartment in Orlando, where the Russian immigrant had moved after leaving Massachusetts. After several hours of questioning, Ashton’s report indicates, Todashev confessed to involvement in the 2011 killings, which also may be linked to Tsarnaev. (Some sections of the Florida report were redacted.) At that point, the law enforcement officials informed Todashev of his Miranda rights and asked him to complete a handwritten confession. As he wrote, one of the two Massachusetts troopers stepped out of the room to call a Middlesex County assistant district attorney. That, says the report, was when Todashev attacked.

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Todashev was a highly trained martial-arts fighter. Under the circumstances described in the report, Ashton found there were no other viable reactions to protect the lives of the FBI agent and the remaining Massachusetts trooper. But the decision by the other Massaschusetts trooper to leave the room beforehand — “a deviation from the original plan,” as the Florida report put it — is mystifying. It’s unclear why that communication with the Middlesex prosecutor couldn’t have been handled by text — one of the troopers and the prosecutor had been texting throughout the evening — or after Todashev was safely in custody. After all, the Florida report repeatedly emphasized that law enforcement knew how dangerous Todashev was, and had opted to bring three officers that night for that very reason. So why would any of them take their eyes off him?

Neither the Florida report nor the less detailed second report, from the US Justice Department’s civil rights division, appears to reach any conclusion on the wisdom of the agents’ conduct. The Florida report also reveals that neither of the Massachusetts troopers had more than basic self-defense training. The FBI did not make its agent available to the Florida prosecutor for an interview, leaving Ashton unable to ascertain whether he had “defensive tactics expertise.” That leaves a question for both Massachusetts and federal authorities: Given Todashev’s reputation, were these the right three individuals to send into an apartment with him?

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This isn’t simply a matter of second-guessing decisions made by law enforcement agents in a stressful, fast-moving situation. While it’s unclear exactly what role in the Waltham murders Todashev was about to confess to, it seems that the families of those victims may have lost a chance to see a killer brought to justice. Authorities should release a full, unredacted copy of the report as soon as possible, and provide Todashev’s handwritten confession to the public. Federal and Massachusetts officials must investigate whether their decisions in the days and minutes before the shooting resulted in an avoidable death. Even if law enforcement agents committed no prosecutable offense, losing a key witness in a terrorism investigation isn’t a lapse that can be dismissed lightly.