Fairfax County on Tuesday agreed to pay $2.95 million to the family of John Geer, settling a wrongful death lawsuit over the August 2013 shooting of the unarmed Springfield man by a county police officer.
But nearly 20 months after Geer’s death, no decision has been made on whether to charge the officer, Adam D. Torres, with a crime. While federal and county prosecutors continue to consider the case, Torres remains on paid administrative duty.
Geer, 46, was standing in the doorway of his townhouse with his hands on top of the storm door when he was shot once in the chest, police records show. As his father and best friend watched in horror, Geer spun, closed the front door and fell to the floor.
Fairfax police, uncertain of Geer’s condition, waited an hour before going in to render aid while Geer’s family pleaded with them to help. But Geer was dead where he fell, police reports show.
The settlement places the shooting in an unusual legal limbo: A civil suit for a police shooting has been resolved before prosecutors have decided whether to file criminal charges. Typically, civil suits in such matters aren’t even filed until a criminal case is concluded, which enables the victim’s relatives and their attorneys to gather information from the criminal prosecution and potentially benefit from a conviction.
But after a year with no movement on the criminal case and no information from the authorities, Geer’s family filed suit. That prompted a torrent of information about the case in January, including records that revealed a discrepancy between the accounts of Torres and other witnesses: Torres said Geer moved his hands quickly toward his waist; four officers and two other witnesses said his hands were near his head.
Three months later, the case was settled.
Still, the criminal case remains dormant. Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh and U.S. Attorney Dana J. Boente, to whom Morrogh turned over the investigation in January 2014, declined to comment Tuesday.
Fairfax’s decision to settle the civil case is not a concession that Torres committed a wrongful act, as the terms of the settlement state that it is not an admission of liability.
“It’s odd that the civil case is already concluded,” said veteran defense lawyer Jonathan Shapiro, who said the settlement would have no legal effect on the criminal case. “But what’s really astounding is that they haven’t made a decision on the criminal case after all this time. It’s not like they’re waiting for forensic evidence or hunting for witnesses. They’ve had everything from the get-go.”
Geer’s longtime partner, Maura Harrington, said Tuesday that she wanted to avoid a long legal fight, and she implored prosecutors to pursue a criminal case. “Nothing can replace John,” Harrington said. “He was a good dad. One of the biggest things was we wanted our daughters to go to college and not have huge debt because of it. This will accomplish that.”
Michael Lieberman, Harrington’s attorney, said his research showed the settlement was the largest in a police shooting in Virginia history. “No family should have to fight like the Geer family was forced to,” Lieberman said, “in order to learn basic facts about the police shooting of a loved one.”
In announcing the settlement, Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) said, “I’m very pleased that we have a fair settlement in the case, and I hope this will bring some sense of closure to the family.”
The case led to Bulova’s forming a commission to review county police policies on the use of force and the release of information, and it cost a deputy county attorney her job when supervisors saw e-mails allegedly indicating that she had kept information from them.
Torres, 32, has not spoken publicly about the case. He joined the Fairfax police in 2006, and when he shot Geer, it was the first time he fired his weapon on duty, records show.
Torres and his attorney, John Carroll, did not return messages seeking comment Tuesday.
The investigation of Geer’s death stands out because of the unusually long time county prosecutors are taking to decide whether to charge Torres — and the long silences. Fairfax police issued a news release on the day of Geer’s killing, and then they did not release any more information, to Geer’s family or the public, for 16 months.
It fell to Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Randy I. Bellows to break the silence, assisted by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa).
Harrington sued Fairfax Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. and the department in September 2014, a year after the killing. Then Bellows, in December, ordered the county, over its vigorous objections, to turn over its investigative file to the family’s attorneys. Bellows cited a Justice Department letter to Grassley in which federal authorities said they had no objection to the release of information. In February, the judge went on to order the release of Torres’s internal affairs files to the family’s attorneys.
Harrington, who lived with Geer for 24 years, is the administrator of his estate and filed suit on behalf of their two daughters, 18 and 14, who are the sole beneficiaries of the settlement. “We accomplished what we wanted, which is knowing what happened, and what was covered up.”
But Harrington said she felt a criminal case should be pursued against Torres. “He was murdered,” she said of Geer. “He was just standing up for his rights. He was in his own home, and he was killed because of it.”
The case began on the morning of Aug. 29, 2013, when Harrington informed Geer that she had signed a lease on an apartment and was moving out, a breakup she said they had been discussing for months. Geer began tossing Harrington’s belongings on the front yard, and Harrington called police.
Torres and Officer David Neil reported that when they approached Geer and Harrington outside their home, Geer, a kitchen remodeling contractor, turned and walked inside. He then showed the officers a holstered handgun and, according to Torres and Neil, said: “I have a gun. I will use it if I need to because you guys have guns.” Geer then placed the gun inside the door and out of the officers’ sight.
While Geer chatted amiably for about 40 minutes with Officer Rodney Barnes, a trained negotiator, Torres kept his gun trained on Geer, the officers’ reports show.
“When the shot happened, his hands were up,” Barnes told investigators.
Four days later, Torres told detectives that Geer “brought both his hands down really quick near his waist, and I pulled the trigger one time.”
The detectives, John Farrell and Chris Flanagan, asked Torres whether he had fired accidentally. “It was not accidental,” Torres told them. “No, it was justified. I have no doubt about that at all. I don’t feel sorry for shooting the guy at all.”
County officials said the settlement will be paid from two insurance funds: $1 million from a county self-insurance fund and $1.95 million from an excess insurance fund.
Antonio Olivo contributed to this report.