Defense lawyers: Did FBI pressure push Boston bomber over the edge? (+video)

Lawyers for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings, say contact with the FBI may have been a 'precipitating event' to the bombings last April.

By , Staff writer

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    Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, charged with using a weapon of mass destruction in the bombings on April 15, 2013 near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The federal government is seeking the death penalty in the case against Tsarnaev.

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Three days after an FBI agent was cleared of wrongdoing in the bizarre killing of an associate of slain Boston bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev, lawyers for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the only surviving bombing suspect, alleged that the FBI attempted to recruit the elder Tsarnaev as an informant.

In court filings on Friday, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s defense team said that new information suggests the FBI interviewed Tamerlan on several occasions before the attack, and even pressured him to surreptitiously report on the Chechen underworld. Lawyers are seeking more information from the agency in order to formulate a death penalty defense that points to Tamerlan as the ideological ringleader of the attack.

“We do not suggest that these contacts are to be blamed and have no evidence to suggest that they were improper, but rather view them as an important part of the story of Tamerlan’s decline,” defense attorney David Bruck wrote. “Since Tamerlan is dead, the government is the source of corroboration that these visits did in fact occur and of what was said during them.”

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Mr. Bruck suggested that Tamerlan Tsarnaev could have misread the agency’s intentions, which may have “increased his paranoia and distress.”

Dzhokhar, who is now 20, was injured and captured and his brother killed following a four-day manhunt after the twin explosions near the finish line of the Boston Marathon almost a year ago. He has pleaded not guilty to a 30-count indictment for his alleged role in an event that killed three people and injured more than 260. Prosecutors will seek the death penalty if he is convicted at a trial now set for November.

Given those stakes, defense attorneys say they want any evidence the FBI has that could show the elder Tsarnaev “supplied the motivation, planning and ideology” behind the attack, and that his younger brother “acted under his domination and control.”

The evidence, he argued, will be used “as building blocks of the defendant’s affirmative case for life.”

The FBI has not yet responded to the request.

Meanwhile, the Bureau has continued to emphatically state that it didn’t know the identities of the two suspected bombers until they were fingerprinted, and have denied any involvement with the brothers aside from following up on a tip from a Russian emissary that the elder Tsarnaev may have been seeking jihad.

“To be absolutely clear: No one was surveilling the Tsarnaevs, and they were not identified until after the shootout,” the FBI said in an Oct. 23 press release, following news reports suggesting agents had actually kept close tabs on the brothers. “Any claims to the contrary are false.”

But such denials, critics say, are complicated by the agency’s famously insular and secretive culture. The New York Times reported last year, for example, that out of 150 cases where suspects have been killed or injured by FBI agents since 1993, no agent has ever been charged with wrongdoing. Such statistics “raise red flags” about the Bureau’s integrity, says David Rudovsky at the University of Philadelphia Law School, coauthor of “Police Misconduct: Law and Litigation.”

In the case of Ibragim Todashev, who allegedly took part with Tamerlan in a robbery turned triple-homicide in Waltham, in 2011, family members have also stated that FBI pressure may have pushed the 20-something ethnic Chechen and mixed martial arts fighter to the brink of violence.

According to a Florida state prosecutor’s report that cleared an FBI agent of wrongdoing, Mr. Todashev was killed by the agent after a five hour interview in a hot Orlando apartment, and after Todashev attacked the agent and a police officer with a “pole of some kind.”

It’s not clear whether Todashev was in official FBI custody at the time of his death, but he had begun to write a confession to his role in the triple homicide and was not handcuffed. The report on the shooting, however, suggests that Todashev became agitated as it became clear that he may be facing arrest and prison time. The report also said Todashev had a chance to flee the apartment, but instead chose to fight.

Todashev’s father, meanwhile, says he believes the FBI tortured and killed his son in order to cover up the agency’s involvement. Todashev’s friends have told reports that FBI agents hounded Todashev constantly after the marathon bombing.

Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the Bureau has stepped up surveillance of specific racial, ethnic and religious communities, including the use of informants. The tactics have led to dozens of foiled attacks, but has also left the Bureau open to charges of entrapment, not to mention assorted Internet conspiracy theories.

Part of those post-9/11 tactics are the use of “voluntary interviews … often encouraging interviewees to serve as informants in their communities,” writes the American Civil Liberties Union.

In a report last week, the House Committee on Homeland Security suggested that missed leads and failures to connect dots may have kept agents from foiling the marathon attack. But Congress did not assign any specific blame or fault to any of the country’s intelligence agencies, including the FBI, for failure to stop the bombings.

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