A Fairfax County Circuit Court judge on Monday ordered county police to provide vast portions of their investigation into the police shooting death of an unarmed Springfield man to the attorneys for the man’s family, including the officer’s name, which had been previously undisclosed.
Just three days after a hearing on the Geer family’s request for information in their civil suit against Fairfax Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr., Judge Randy I. Bellows issued a 12-page ruling that threatens to end nearly 16 months of silence by Fairfax authorities concerning the death of John Geer. The judge did so, in large part, by noting that the case is now being handled by federal authorities, who did not object to any of the Geer family’s requests and who expressly stated publicly that they had not instructed Fairfax to refrain from disclosing information about the case. The judge’s order redacts the home addresses, phone numbers and identifying data of the law enforcement and civilian witnesses.
Fairfax said it would comply with the order, according to county spokesman Tony Castrilli, and not appeal to a higher court. Bellows gave Fairfax 30 days to produce the documents and records requested.
Geer, 46, was unarmed when he was shot once as he stood in the front door of his townhouse on Aug. 29, 2013. Fairfax officers were dispatched to the home because of a domestic dispute between Geer and his longtime partner, and witnesses said Geer stood with his hands above his head on the frame of his storm door for about 50 minutes before one officer suddenly fired one shot into his chest.
After four months of investigation, the Fairfax commonwealth’s attorney sent the case to the U.S. attorney in Alexandria, saying he had a “conflict of interest.” The case has remained with the Justice Department’s civil rights division since January. But no information has been released about who shot Geer or why.
Geer’s partner, Maura Harrington, filed suit in September against Roessler and the unnamed “John Doe” police officers involved in the front-yard showdown with Geer, seeking the information and financial damages. In response to pretrial discovery requests, Fairfax County objected to every request, saying that the case was still under investigation and releasing information could harm the case.
“The County, however,” Bellows wrote, “is not conducting the criminal investigation,” noting that only the Justice Department is currently handling the case. “Significantly, the Department of Justice has not sought to intervene or lodge any objection with respect to the pending Motion to Compel” by the Geer family’s lawyers.
Bellows then cited a letter written last month by the Justice Department to Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa). Grassley had written to both Roessler and U.S. Attorney Dana Boente earlier in November, asking them why the investigation was taking so long and why information couldn’t be released.
“The FCPD was not asked to refrain from disclosing information about the shooting,” Assistant Attorney General Peter J. Kadzik wrote to Grassley. “However, the FCPD was advised not to disclose information about the federal investigation.”
A Fairfax assistant county attorney, Kimberly Pace Baucom, said that because the police were reluctant to determine which information was shooting-related and which information was investigation-related, no information should be disclosed. “The Court rejects that interpretation,” Bellows wrote. “If the Department of Justice had meant to equate ‘the shooting’ with the ‘federal investigation,’ it could have said so. Instead, it distinguished the two, and the Court finds that distinction to be meaningful.”
Bellows ruled that any documents created after Jan. 7, when the case went from Fairfax to the Justice Department, could be withheld, because they were part of the federal investigation. He also ruled that documents created since Fairfax police launched their internal affairs investigation, sometime after Sept. 2 when the suit was filed, also could be withheld, but that documents before that time “are not part of the internal administrative investigation.”
Bellows then granted requests for dozens of records, to include “Documents related to the shooting of John Geer,” “Videos and other recordings of statements” and “Documents reflecting the identity and location of all FCPD officers at the incident.”The judge rejected Fairfax’s request for a broad protective order of the material. Bellows said the argument raised by Baucom on Friday, “to prevent the case from being tried in the press — the Court does not find this to be a persuasive justification for entry of a protective order.”
Mike Lieberman, lawyer for the Geer family, said he was “gratified that the judge has finally ended the family’s long nightmare of not knowing what happened to their son.”