Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares (R) on Friday dropped the state’s federal appeal in the manslaughter case against two U.S. Park Police officers, effectively ending any attempt at criminal prosecution of the officers who fatally shot unarmed motorist Bijan Ghaisar in a Fairfax County neighborhood in 2017.
The case was investigated by the FBI, because the Park Police are federal officers, and in 2019 the Justice Department declined to file federal civil rights charges against the officers. In 2020, Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano (D) obtained involuntary manslaughter indictments against both officers, and enlisted the help of Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (D) to prosecute the case in federal court, where the officers were entitled to have the case heard.
Last year, Senior U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton ruled that Vinyard and Amaya had acted reasonably in killing Ghaisar, and ordered the manslaughter charges dismissed. Herring and Descano appealed.
But then Herring lost his reelection bid in November and was replaced by Miyares. In January, an attorney on Herring’s staff filed a brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, arguing that the case should be reinstated. When Miyares took office, Fairfax prosecutors and the Ghaisar family said his attorneys declined to speak with them. Miyares filed a motion to dismiss the appeal and end the case Friday afternoon.
In a statement, Miyares said that he and his team reviewed the evidence and “we agree with the results of the extensive review conducted by the Department of Justice, and the analysis of the United States District Court. In light of all the circumstances of the life-or-death situation confronting them, Officers Amaya and Vinyard acted reasonably in their use of force, and did no more than was necessary and proper to perform their lawful duties as federal officers. I have therefore decided to ask the Fourth Circuit to dismiss the Commonwealth’s appeal. I will not perpetuate the continued prosecution of two officers who were doing what they were trained to do under tremendously difficult circumstances.”
Amaya and Vinyard were on administrative duties until their arrest in 2020, and on paid administrative leave since. The Park Police declined to provide an update on their status Friday. Their attorneys said they wanted to withhold comment pending a ruling by the appeals court on the attorney general’s motion.
“By overriding the decision of the grand jury, AG Miyares has substituted his own political calculations for the judgment of the citizens of Fairfax County who heard the evidence and decided to indict these two officers for killing Bijan Ghaisar,” said Thomas G. Connolly, a lawyer for the Ghaisars. “It is a tragedy that in this Commonwealth, justice is decided not by the evidence but by the political whims of a novice AG.”
“I’m just heartbroken for the family,” Descano said. “If you think about what they have gone through, and to have the attorney general, for purely political reasons, to not allow the case to get to the 4th Circuit and get a ruling, is shameful.” Descano, who has battled with Miyares over Fairfax County’s handling of criminal cases since the new attorney general took office, added, “For a guy who screams about victims, to not even be able to do that? How is that taking care of victims? I don’t know.”
Although the state prosecution is over, Descano said he held out hope that the Justice Department under the Biden administration, and Attorney General Merrick Garland, would reconsider the department’s 2019 ruling and launch a federal case against the officers. Last May, Descano and Herring asked Garland to revisit the case and permit FBI agents to cooperate with the prosecution, which had been barred by the previous administration. Herring did allow the FBI to participate, but Descano said Justice Department officials wanted to wait and see what happened with the state prosecution, which was then pending before Hilton.
A civil suit filed by the Ghaisars against the Park Police remains pending. It was on the verge of trial in the fall of 2020 when Descano obtained the criminal indictments. Hilton then put the case on hold.
An internal investigation of Vinyard and Amaya might now begin, which could lead to disciplinary action or firing. The Park Police have said they were waiting until the criminal case was resolved to begin an internal affairs case.
Ghaisar was an accountant who was born and raised in Northern Virginia, graduated from Langley High School and Virginia Commonwealth University, and worked for his father’s firm in McLean. He was driving south on the George Washington Parkway near Alexandria, apparently smoking marijuana, according to court records, when he suddenly stopped in front of a Toyota Corolla being driven as an Uber by Atif Rehman. The two vehicles collided, and Rehman’s Corolla was damaged, but Rehman said Ghaisar never looked back at him and drove off. His passenger called 911 to report a hit-and-run, police records show.
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Vinyard and Amaya have not spoken publicly about the events of that night. But through their lawyers they have said that they spotted Ghaisar’s Grand Cherokee, pulled alongside him on Washington Street and yelled at him to pull over. Ghaisar did not. Instead, he drove farther south onto the parkway in Fairfax County.
Vinyard turned on his lights and siren as Amaya updated the Park Police and Fairfax police dispatchers. Fairfax Lt. Dan Gohn was in the area and joined the pursuit with his in-car camera recording.
Gohn’s video shows that Ghaisar stopped in the right lane of the parkway, then drove off as Amaya ran at Ghaisar’s Jeep with his gun drawn. Several minutes later, Ghaisar pulled off the parkway onto a grassy area, then sped off again as Amaya approached him.
Ghaisar stopped again at the intersection of Alexandria Avenue and Fort Hunt Road. Vinyard stopped his vehicle perpendicular to Ghaisar’s Jeep, and Amaya emerged from the passenger side with his gun out. As Ghaisar started to roll forward, Amaya started shooting. Vinyard ran from behind the Park Police car and also began shooting.
After the first set of shots, Amaya moved to the front of the Jeep. It lurched forward two more times, and Vinyard shot both times. According to Vinyard’s lawyers, he feared for Amaya’s life and his shots were justifiable. Amaya’s lawyers said he, too, feared for his life, though the video seems to show Ghaisar’s Jeep rolling away from the officers in an attempt to maneuver around the Park Police vehicle.
Ghaisar was shot four times in the head and died 10 days later.
The FBI investigation ended when the Justice Department announced in November 2019 there would be no federal charges, saying, “the Department is unable to disprove a claim of self-defense or defense of others by the officers.” Prosecutors would have to prove that the officers “willfully” acted with “a bad purpose to disregard the law,” the Justice Department said.
Descano empaneled a special grand jury in the summer of 2020, and in October obtained indictments charging Vinyard and Amaya with involuntary manslaughter and reckless use of a firearm. The two officers were briefly booked into the Fairfax jail and released on bond.
Soon, the officers moved to have the case heard in federal court, a motion that Hilton granted. The officers argued that the “supremacy clause” of the U.S. Constitution, which says that states must defer to federal law, granted them immunity. Legal precedent says that if federal officers are acting in their official capacity, and do only what is “necessary and proper,” they are shielded from state prosecution.
An evidentiary hearing was set for August 2021 on whether the officers’ actions were necessary and proper. But the Virginia Attorney General’s Office instead chose not to present evidence, saying there was no dispute about the facts. Hilton then ruled in October that the officers had acted properly. Virginia appealed, but Miyares withdrew that appeal Friday.
Miyares’s statement added: “The events of November 17, 2017, were undoubtedly tragic. I am saddened by what happened and the pain it has caused. But persecuting the police was the wrong response.”