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Former Fairfax police officer charged with murder of unarmed Springfield man

Fairfax County released audio interviews of the two officers involved in the shooting death of John Geer as they explain what happened. (Video: Fairfax County Police Department)

A former Fairfax County police officer was charged with second-degree murder Monday, nearly two years after he shot and killed an unarmed Springfield man who stood with his hands raised in the doorway of his home.

The indictment of Adam D. Torres in the killing of 46-year-old John Geer, who had a holstered gun at his feet when he was shot, marks the first time in the 75-year history of the Fairfax County Police Department that an officer has faced criminal prosecution in connection with an on-duty shooting.

Geer’s slaying in August 2013 sparked protests, shook trust in law enforcement and prompted county officials to begin a broad review of the department’s use of force and the way it communicates with the public about police shootings.

“Justice is prevailing,” said Don Geer, John Geer’s father. “I figured it was going to eventually happen. It’s unfortunate we had to wait so long for it to take place. But our judicial system is going through its process, and we will see justice served.”

Officer Adam Torres is fired

The second-degree murder charge also follows a string of controversial police shootings in the county in recent years and comes amid a national debate about the use of force after high-profile officer-involved killings in Ferguson, Mo., Staten Island, Baltimore and elsewhere.

A special grand jury in Fairfax County returned the indictment against Torres after hearing six days of testimony from nearly 20 witnesses, including a detective, Geer’s family and other officers who responded to the scene. Torres did not testify.

Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh said he had requested a bench warrant for Torres. Fairfax County police said Torres turned himself in on Monday evening and is being held without bond at the county jail.

Morrogh said Torres would probably be arraigned in Circuit Court as soon as Wednesday.

Morrogh declined to discuss the significance of the first indictment of a Fairfax officer for an on-duty shooting.

“I’m not permitted to characterize the case under the rules governing me as a prosecutor,” Morrogh said. “I’m grateful to the grand jury for their attention and taking time out of their personal lives to do this.”

Torres’s attorney, John F. Carroll, did not return a call seeking comment on Monday.

After an internal investigation and appeal process, Torres was fired July 31, police said. He had been an officer since January 2006 but was on administrative duty since August 2013.

Police officers rarely face charges for shootings in the line of duty. An April analysis by The Washington Post and researchers from Bowling Green State University found only 54 officers had been charged out of the thousands of police shootings over the past decade.

Story: Thousands dead, few prosecuted

“It’s very, very rare. Most shootings are found to be justified,” said Philip Stinson, the Bowling Green State criminologist who worked on the project.

When officers are charged, the analysis found, it usually occurred in cases, such as Geer’s, where the victim was unarmed. But there usually were other factors that made the cases stand out, such as a victim being shot in the back or video of the shooting.

Stinson added in an e-mail that even when there was strong evidence against an officer, convictions are difficult to obtain.

“Juries are very reluctant to second-guess the split-second decisions of police officers to deploy deadly force,” Stinson wrote.

Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova, who launched the review of police practices after the Geer shooting said the “loss of life is tragic and this has been an awful situation for the Geer family and Fairfax County.”

“This period of time [for the indictment to be returned] has been unacceptable,” Bulova said. “Fairfax has learned a lot about communicating information more thoroughly and quickly. We have taken steps to rectify what has gone wrong with the Geer case.”

On the afternoon of Aug. 29. 2013, Geer’s longtime partner called police to say that they had argued and that Geer was throwing her belongings onto the front lawn of the Pebble Brook Court townhouse they shared. Maura Harrington told a dispatcher that Geer had guns in the house.

When Torres and Officer David Neil arrived, a tense, 42-minute standoff ensued.

Torres told detectives that Geer showed officers a holstered handgun as he stood in the doorway of his home and told them: “I have a gun; I will use it if I need to because you guys have guns.”

Torres then scrambled behind a tree in the front yard and aimed his gun at Geer from 17 feet away, according to the report. Neil also pulled his gun but aimed it at the ground.

Geer soon placed his weapon on the ground, and the officers told investigators that they did not see it again during the course of encounter. Officer Rodney Barnes, who was a trained negotiator, arrived on the scene and relieved Neil. He began talking with Geer and later told detectives that he felt Geer was comfortable with him.

As they spoke, Geer stood with his hands resting on top of a storm door, but officers said he refused Barnes’s requests to come out of the house. Geer repeatedly asked Torres to lower his weapon. Officers said that Torres would comply but that Torres would raise it again when Geer periodically asked to scratch his nose.

Neil radioed to colleagues that Geer had said he wanted to take his own life, and “he might do a suicide-by-cop type of situation.”

At 3:34 p.m. as Barnes continued to negotiate with Geer, Torres fired one shot at Geer without warning, surprising the other officers, they told investigators. Geer retreated inside the home, and the police report states Torres told Barnes, “I’m sorry.”

Not sure whether Geer was alive or dead, the officers waited 70 minutes for a SWAT team to arrive with an armored truck outfitted with a battering ram, according to the report. When officers entered the house, they found Geer dead just inside the front door.

Torres told investigators that he shot Geer, because “he brought both his hands down really quick near his waist.” Torres said he felt Geer was a threat.

“It was not accidental,” Torres told detectives. “No, it was justified. I have no doubt about that at all. I don’t feel sorry for shooting the guy at all.”

But four officers on the scene and Geer’s father and a friend, who were also there, said Geer’s hands remained above his shoulders when he was shot.

“When the shot happened, his hands were up,” Barnes told detectives. “I’m not here to throw [Torres] under the bus or anything like that, but I didn’t see what he saw.”

The investigation that followed the shooting stretched on for months without word from police or prosecutors about the identity of the shooter, why Geer was shot or whether charges would be filed.

In January 2014, Morrogh turned the case over to federal prosecutors, because police would not provide Torres’s prior internal affairs files. (Bulova and Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. said at a Monday evening news conference that they had not received any recent updates about the status of the federal investigation.)

Morrogh resumed his investigation after receiving Torres’s internal affairs files in February and called the special grand jury earlier this month.

When the investigation reached the year mark, Geer’s former partner, Harrington, filed a lawsuit seeking answers about what happened to him. Fairfax County settled the case in April for $2.95 million.

Roessler released a statement Monday saying the department respected the special grand jury process and prosecutors. Roessler said he would meet with Geer’s family to discuss the administrative handling of the case. He also called Geer’s death tragic.

“We express our sympathy to the Geer family, support to our great community and the men and women of the Fairfax County Police Department,” Roessler said.

Harrington, Geer’s partner, said she was both stunned and relieved by the news.

“Frankly, I was surprised,” she said. “I’m so happy that they’re validating what we said, and believed to be the case, that he should be charged.”