The Justice Department announced Friday that it would not reopen the federal investigation of the 2017 shooting death of Bijan Ghaisar by two U.S. Park Police officers in Fairfax County, Va.
The decision, relayed to the family by Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke in a letter Thursday, puts a definitive end to the criminal prosecution of Park Police Officers Lucas Vinyard, 40, and Alejandro Amaya, 42.
A lawsuit filed by the Ghaisar family against the Park Police, which was put on hold while the criminal case against the officers was pending, may now resume in federal court in Alexandria, Va. But the same judge who dismissed the criminal case last year, Senior U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton, will also hear the civil case, which by law is heard by a judge, not a jury.
Ghaisar, 25, was an accountant from McLean, Va., who was driving alone down the George Washington Memorial Parkway in Alexandria on Nov. 17, 2017, when his Jeep Grand Cherokee stopped suddenly in a lane of traffic and was struck from behind by a Toyota Corolla. Instead of exchanging information, Ghaisar drove off, and police began looking for him.
Vinyard and Amaya spotted him in Old Town Alexandria and pursued him down the parkway with their lights and sirens on. Ghaisar stopped and then drove off twice, as Amaya ran at him with his gun drawn, a video recorded by a Fairfax police cruiser shows. During a third stop in the Fort Hunt neighborhood, Ghaisar again started to drive away from the officers, the video shows, and Vinyard and Amaya both fired five shots into the Jeep.
In a news release, the Justice Department pointed to the high legal bar to prosecuting officers charged in on-duty shootings, using the same language it did in 2019 in explaining why it would not file federal criminal civil rights charges. The department said prosecutors would have to prove that the officers “willfully used unreasonable force” and that they “acted with the deliberate and specific intent to do something the law forbids.”
As in 2019, the department said Friday, “Mistake, misperception, negligence or poor judgment are not sufficient to establish a federal criminal civil rights violation.”
In her letter to the family Thursday, Clarke said, “We are aware of no information obtained since the closure of the federal investigation that warrants reopening it at this time.” The Justice Department is defending the Park Police in the civil case.
The Ghaisars said in a statement Friday that the decision “is a betrayal to our family and to justice.”
“There is frame-by-frame video showing Officers Amaya and Vinyard violently out of control before they gunned down Bijan at close range,” the statement said. “This was not poor judgment or negligence, this was a willful, deadly escalation of excessive violence by two federal law enforcement officers who shot 10 times at Bijan — the last two shots fired after two bullets had already pierced his head and his Jeep was rolling into a ditch.”
The family added, “This devastating outcome is made worse by the department’s callous treatment of our family, never once granting our requests for meetings or information about the investigation into our son’s murder.”
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
After the department’s decision in 2019, Fairfax prosecutors took up the case and in October 2020 obtained involuntary-manslaughter indictments against Vinyard and Amaya. The case was removed to federal court, because federal officers are entitled by law to have their cases heard there, and Hilton dismissed it in October. He ruled that the officers had done only what was “necessary and proper” in their duties as Park Police officers.
Fairfax County prosecutors appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, but newly elected Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares withdrew the appeal in April, saying he would not “perpetuate the continued prosecution of two officers who were doing what they were trained to do under tremendously difficult circumstances.”
The officers, who have never spoken publicly about the case, remain on paid leave. The Interior Department has begun proceedings to fire them, the officers’ union said last year, but no decision has been reached.
“This was a terribly unfortunate incident,” said the Park Police officers’ union chairman, Kenneth Spencer. “But no one, including our officers, deserves ongoing and perpetual harassment from the government. The criminal process has run its course.”
Jonathan L. Fahey, Amaya’s lawyer, said Amaya was pleased with the announcement by the Justice Department “vindicating its earlier decision that criminal charges were unwarranted in this case.”
“The department’s decision is consistent with the federal judge’s ruling, Virginia attorney general’s analysis, and any serious interpretation of the law — that both officers’ actions were necessary and proper and they performed their duties as expected,” he said.
Daniel S. Crowley, Vinyard’s lawyer, said the officer and his family were “grateful for the thorough investigation by the Department of Justice and its careful consideration of the evidence.”
“It’s been a difficult four-and-a-half years, but ultimately, a federal judge, the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the Department of Justice through two administrations, all recognized that he did his duty and conducted himself appropriately under the most difficult circumstances,” he said.
David Nakamura contributed to this report.