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Taxi driver pleads guilty to lying to Boston bombing investigators

A 28-year-old taxi driver named Khairullozhon Matanov pled guilty to four counts of lying to investigators in the Boston bombing case on Tuesday. In exchange for his guilty plea Matanov, who has been in jail since last May, will likely be sentenced to 30 months behind bars on top of the time he has already served – if the judge chooses to accept the terms of his plea agreement. If the case had gone to trial, the government would have demanded a sentence of more than 30 years.

For charges related to a terrorism investigation, Matanov’s sentence will be extraordinarily light: sentences in such cases are subject to the so-called terrorism adjustment, which can add a dozen or more years to what the sentence would be for the same crime committed in a non-terrorism case. The bombers’ other friends, who were convicted of obstructing justice or lying to investigators, may face sentences of more than 20 years in one case and 17 in the other. But in Matanov’s case, even as he entered his guilty plea, Judge William C. Young said, “I didn’t hear much about the interference throwing the investigators off their tracks.”

In fact, Matanov, who knew the Tsarnaev brothers, voluntarily went to the police on April 19, 2013 –- four days after the bombing and less than 24 hours after the FBI had asked for the public’s help in identifying the suspects pictured on surveillance tapes. He was interviewed by a police investigator in Braintree, a suburb of Boston; by this time, Tamerlan Tsarnaev was dead and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was in hiding. Matanov gave the police their cell phone numbers and told them he had had dinner with the brothers the day of the bombing. He was not, however, contacted by the FBI until the following day, when Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was already in custody.

Most of the original indictment against Matanov had little to do with the actual investigation: it described Matanov downplaying his relationship with Tamerlan Tsarnaev in a conversation with his roommate: “Matanov falsely told Witness 1 that he did not know whether Tamerlan Tsarnaev held any extremist views.” It is not, however, a crime to lie to one’s roommate –- or to anyone other than law enforcement.

The indictment also described Matanov as trying to dispose of some cell phones before the FBI came to search his apartment -– but it did not allege that the cell phones had any connection to the bombing, only that Matanov said they were “illegal.” During Matanov’s arrest hearing last year, the prosecution also stressed that he had been wiring money to Kyrgyzstan in the five years he had lived in the United States. But there was no indication that the transfers, which averaged about $14,000 a year, were anything but standard-issue emigre remittances to family back home.

The most serious charges against Matanov stemmed from discrepancies in testimony he had given to the police and the FBI in several interviews. For example, the indictment alleged that Matanov told the police that he had seen the older alleged bomber only in mosque and while playing soccer, “which Matanov intended to be false, misleading, and to conceal the fact that Matanov was Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s friend and had seen him twice that week on occasions unconnected with soccer and worship.” But Matanov’s former defense attorney, Edward Hayden, said that the transcript of the police interview showed that Matanov was never asked about his relationship with Tsarnaev –- indeed, that the investigator cut him off when he was telling that part of the story.

The indictment also alleged that Matanov misstated the date he had last seen Tamerlan in mosque -– he said it had been in 2011 but it was actually 2012; that he neglected to say he had driven the brothers to dinner the day of the bombing -– though he never tried to conceal the fact of the dinner itself; and that he’d fudged the time when he realized that he knew the suspect –- probably out of the mistaken belief that he was legally obligated to report this to the authorities (the law does not require people to volunteer to help investigations). Finally, he was accused of deleting files from his computer, though there was no allegation that these files were related to the bombing.

In other words, the government never said that Matanov knew anything about the bombing. In fact, the FBI had him under overt surveillance for weeks after the bombing and continued to keep an eye on him for months thereafter –- telling him, among other things, to get out of town for the anniversary of the bombing -– and apparently found nothing he had done wrong aside from lying to his roommate and possibly having stolen cell phones in his apartment. Still, in May 2014, more than a year after the bombing, Matanov was arrested and charged with obstruction of justice.

Within three days of being arrested, Matanov had lost his job, his apartment, and the lease on his cab. By the time his arrest hearing occurred, he was indigent. Now he stands to spend another two and a half years in prison. Because he has political asylum -– he is a member of Kyrgyzstan’s persecuted and abused Uzbek minority -– he cannot be deported. But we he is released from prison, he will be 30 years old, penniless, homeless, and alone.