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Advocacy groups ask Garland to revisit police slaying of Bijan Ghaisar

The Justice Department declined to bring charges in 2019, and a federal judge dismissed a case brought by Fairfax prosecutors

FBI agents in June 2018 comb the intersection in Fairfax County where Bijan Ghaisar was shot seven months earlier. Advocacy groups and members of Congress are asking the Justice Department to reopen the case. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

Dozens of advocacy and watchdog groups, including Amnesty International, the Fairfax County NAACP and the Project on Government Oversight, wrote to Attorney General Merrick Garland on Thursday asking him to reconsider the Justice Department’s decision to close the federal civil rights investigation into the 2017 slaying of unarmed motorist Bijan Ghaisar by two U.S. Park Police officers.

The letter, signed by 45 organizations, follows a similar missive to Garland earlier this month by seven members of Congress, including both senators from Virginia and the chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources.

The Justice Department had no immediate comment on the letter Thursday. After a two-year investigation, the department under then-Attorney General William P. Barr decided in November 2019 that it did not have enough evidence to charge the officers with federal criminal civil rights violations, because prosecutors could not prove the officers had “willfully” violated Ghaisar’s constitutional rights.

The letter states that “this administration has expressed a genuine commitment to criminal justice reform, accountability, and racial equity.” It adds: “Few cases touch on these issues as squarely as this case does.”

Read the letter sent by 45 advocacy groups to the attorney general

Ghaisar, a 25-year-old accountant who lived in Tysons Corner, was fatally shot during a traffic stop on Nov. 17, 2017, by Park Police Officers Lucas Vinyard, 40, and Alejandro Amaya, 42. Ghaisar had been involved in a fender bender in the city of Alexandria in which his Jeep Grand Cherokee was struck from behind by a Toyota Corolla, and Ghaisar drove off without speaking to the other driver.

Vinyard and Amaya, in a marked Park Police vehicle, signaled for Ghaisar to pull over as he drove down the George Washington Memorial Parkway. According to a video recorded by a Fairfax County police in-car camera, Ghaisar stopped twice and then drove off as Amaya approached with his gun drawn. At a third stop, after leaving the parkway and entering the Fort Hunt neighborhood, Ghaisar stopped again, then appeared to try to maneuver slowly around the police car. Vinyard and Amaya fired 10 times into the Jeep, fatally wounding Ghaisar, the video shows.

Lawyers for the officers said they feared Amaya was about to be run over by the Jeep. Both officers are on paid leave, and the Interior Department has begun proceedings to fire them.

Fairfax prosecutors obtained manslaughter indictments against Vinyard and Amaya in 2020, but those were dismissed by Senior U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton in Alexandria last year. Hilton said the officers had acted properly and were entitled to “supremacy clause” immunity, in which states must defer to federal authority.

“We write to urge the Department of Justice to give this case the full and fair consideration that it did not receive under the Trump Administration,” the new letter states.A federal prosecution would not be subject to challenge under the Supremacy Clause.” After the Justice Department under Barr declined charges and then banned FBI agents from cooperating with the Fairfax investigation, Garland permitted the FBI to cooperate with Fairfax prosecutors last year.

Justice Dept. reverses course, will assist prosecution in Park Police killing of Bijan Ghaisar

The letter alleges that “the Trump Administration refused to seriously explore the prosecution of the officers for their actions” and that Hilton dismissed the Fairfax case “without citing a single law or case, and without citing a single fact from the record.”

Federal prosecutors rarely bring charges against police officers for on-duty shootings, because the legal bar for doing so is high, and an effort to do so in Bijan’s killing could be further complicated by officials’ previous assertions that they could not substantiate a case.

Other groups that signed the letter include the Council on American-Islamic Relations, MoveOn, the National Council of Churches, the National Iranian American Council and the Virginia AFL-CIO.