The release of 11,000 documents from the Fairfax County police investigation into the fatal shooting of John Geer was a pivotal, and fairly unique, moment in the case. Much of the evidence in the case is now public before any decision has been made about charging him which is uncommon in such cases. We now know that four police officers and two civilian witnesses — Geer’s father and his best friend, watching from a distance — all say that Geer had his hands up around his head when Officer Adam D. Torres fired one shot into his chest on Aug. 29, 2013.
But many questions remain, and some partial answers emerged in the Friday night document dump. Next up in the case is a motions hearing this Friday on the Geer family’s request for the internal affairs files on this shooting. But there are plenty more loose ends to be followed:
Just how much of a threat was John Geer?
This has to be looked at from the police perspective. They were initially told that Geer was throwing the belongings of his longtime partner, Maura Harrington, onto their lawn and that he had two guns locked in a safe. Geer then showed the first two officers a holstered gun, but placed it on the landing to his left.
Combined with information they received that Geer had told Harrington about Geer perhaps wanting to commit “suicide by cop”, this brought a raft of other officers from the West Springfield police station, who took up positions around the townhouse, followed by K-9 units in the back, the helicopter and SWAT team on standby, the records show. [Torres, however, apparently did not hear this information because he did not mention it to investigators in explaining why he shot Geer.]
But Officer Rodney M. Barnes, a trained negotiator, showed up within five minutes and immediately calmed Geer down, he and other officers said. Even Torres said Geer spoke calmly throughout, his statement shows. So why the huge police response? What crime has been committed? The participants in the domestic dispute have been separated. Geer’s gun is down, records show. Police officers I’ve spoken to have questioned why the police didn’t just back off, while ensuring the safety of Harrington and their two daughters. Instead, more and more police officers arrived at Geer’s home. Four stood nearby with guns drawn, though only Torres had his finger on the trigger. Barnes arrived five minutes after Torres and said Geer “never said anything while I was there about, ‘if we came in there he would shoot.'” He was asked if Geer made any threats. “Not while I was there,” Barnes said.
Instead, he verbally jousted with Barnes about knowing his rights, wanting the police off his property, and seeming “arrogant” to one of the other officers. He also said he didn’t want to get shot, and was careful to keep his hands up. The photo below shows the gun was very close to where he stood.
One retired officer I spoke with said on the many domestic calls he handled over the years, if the parties were calm and separated, and no assault or other crime had occurred, he would notify dispatchers about the status of the case and “clear out of there. No one can articulate a crime in this case.” And so no need for an extended stay, much less backup from half the patrol squad.
Why did the police wait 70 minutes to render aid to Geer?
All four of the officers near Geer, including Torres, reported seeing a black or red mark on his lower chest as soon as he was hit. Geer screamed, then spun, closed the door, and collapsed, the officers said. But no aid was rendered to Geer for 70 minutes. A SWAT team and paramedics were summoned, but the records show they were not allowed to enter right away.
The police have noted previously that Geer had at least one gun nearby, which was later found on the landing near the front door, and seven long guns in a safe. They did not know the extent of Geer’s injury and whether he was rearming himself for a shootout. The four nearby officers immediately scurried for cover. Torres and Barnes moved to the townhouse next door.
Four minutes after the shot, Barnes radioed, “I hear moving in the house and some screaming. Is there any way we can try to get a phone call back into the house on his cell or something?” Four minutes after that, Barnes again radioed, “And we do hear more movement in the house.”
Torres told investigators he was standing with Barnes and “I was just hoping that he was ok. My concern was he was going to bleed out to death. I didn’t want the guy to die. I wanted to get him some sort of medical attention.” But Torres acknowledged that he and Barnes couldn’t go in “because if we opened that door, who knows what he was waiting for, we heard movement inside the house but we don’t know what he was doing.”
The police SWAT team had been monitoring the situation, the records show, and immediately mobilized and headed to Geer’s house on Pebble
Creek Brook Court, with both a remote controlled robot and an armored hostage rescue vehicle to assist in the entry. But the documents show they waited while police commanders debated whether they should go into Geer’s house.
“A question,” a SWAT commander’s after-action report states, “as to the legality of a [SWAT] entry into the residence to provide medical assistance to the subject delayed the implementation of [SWAT’s] plan of action.”
The police first used the robot to peek into the townhouse windows, then used the armored vehicle to knock down the door. SWAT officers entered and found Geer dead on the floor. The Geer family lawyers said it is not clear whether immediate medical aid would have saved him, though Harrington and Jeff Stewart, Geer’s best friend and a witness to the shooting, both pleaded with police at the time to go in immediately.
Why did prosecutors actively seek Torres’s internal affairs files so aggressively?
Ray Morrogh knew of Torres’s angry run-in five months earlier with one of his assistant prosecutors, and so did every top Fairfax police commander. Is this the “conflict of interest” Morrogh was referring to when he disclosed in February 2014 that he had transferred the case to federal prosecutors? Did it necessitate him referring the case to the Justice Department, which has now had the case for more than a year without making a decision? Now that the Torres courthouse incident from March 2013 is known, legal observers I’ve spoken with are wondering if it was enough to stall the case. It indicates a willingness by Morrogh to investigate Torres fully, but his decision to hand the criminal case to the feds sent it into its current state of deep limbo. That, in turn, placed both Chief Edwin Roessler and the Fairfax Board of Supervisors in the unusual position of having to wait indefinitely to comment on the case, rather than simply wait a few months for a charging decision from Morrogh, which had been previous standard procedure.
Within two weeks of the shooting, Morrogh directed homicide detectives John Farrell and Chris Flanagan to interview his assistant prosecutor, Chuck Peters, about his experience with Torres, Farrell’s report shows. Peters said Torres cursed him loudly and repeatedly, leading five top Fairfax police commanders to call and apologize to Peters. Then in November 2013, an internal email shows that the detectives’ supervisor, Lt. Bryan Holland, asked Maj. Ted Arnn, the head of police internal affairs: “Have you had a chance to speak with Ray Morrogh. I understand you two may have discussed information which could be pertinent to our investigation, concerning possible ‘anger issues.'” Arnn responds, “There are issues we will have to work out next week. No meeting yet.”
There was a meeting several days later, Morrogh revealed in a letter to Sen. Charles Grassley last month, with Roessler, an internal affairs captain and three Fairfax County attorneys. The county refused to provide Morrogh the internal files. “I addressed each of their concerns,” Morrogh wrote, “none of which, in my legal opinion, warranted the withholding of the requested materials.” He said Virginia rules prohibit subpoenaing the materials from the police. He said a special prosecutor would have run into the same roadblock. Another request met with another “no” in January 2014, and the next day he sent the case to the U.S. attorney in Alexandria.
“At that point I was convinced,” Morrogh wrote, “that the public could not have complete confidence in an investigation where one arm of the police department was cooperating with the prosecutor while the Chief and Internal Affairs Section along with the Office of the County Attorney were seeking to withhold information…The decision made by the Chief of Police and his advisors to withhold the requested materials effectively prevented me from completing the investigation and rendering my decision.”
Was Morrogh seeking only the run-in with the prosecutor case, or all other complaints against Torres? Statements given mandatorily, as a condition of being an officer, cannot be used against that officer in a criminal case. But did the prosecutor want material besides Torres’s statements? And if he obtained such material, would it be admissible in a trial on the shooting, or simply provide insight into Torres’s state of mind? Lawyers tell me such information likely would not be admissible at trial. Morrogh is not commenting while the case is pending.
And what happened with the federal investigation?
FBI agents did not meet with Farrell, the lead police investigator, until April 2, 2014, nearly three months after Morrogh referred the case to the feds. The following week, Farrell met with the assistant U.S. attorney handling the case, Steven Campbell, and then later in April Farrell scheduled interviews for Campbell with officers Barnes, David Neil, Benjamin Kushner and David Parker, the four officers most directly involved in the incident. Then in mid-June, Farrell met with federal investigators twice to provide Torres’s training file and other unspecified documents, the police files show.
And that is the last we’ve heard from the feds. In November, we reported that the U.S. attorney’s office in Alexandria had completed their investigation and sent the results to the Justice Department’s civil rights division. That division has previously taken a long time to rule on high-profile police shooting cases such as the Trayvon Martin case and the Michael Brown case, both still under consideration.
Why didn’t Morrogh call for a grand jury, or simply file charges himself?
The newly released records reveal that, while Torres claimed that Geer dropped his hands suddenly to his waist, four officers corroborated the claims of Geer’s father and best friend — that Geer did not drop his hands and he was “not doing one of those quick grabs, furtive movements or anything,” as Officer David Parker said in his statement that night. If Morrogh wanted to empanel a special grand jury, as Prince William Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert did in the Prince Rams case in 2013, he could have done so and allowed an impartial body to hear the evidence, lawyers I’ve spoken to have said. Did he need the internal affairs information to file charges? Morrogh has declined to discuss the case while it is pending.
But one very experienced lawyer analyzed it like this:
“I don’t understand the timidity in prosecuting this case,” he said. “Basically it will come down to the credibility of the the officers that did not shoot against the one that did and has every motive to avoid responsibility. They [other officers] conversely have no motive to lie and were in a good position to observe what occurred. So the jury is in the classic quandary that in order to acquit the officer they have to believe several other officers all misperceived reality or had a motive to lie. There is no clear way to harmonize both versions. At the same time, the theory of an already agitated officer, not fully conversant with the scene who likely acted on little or no movement from Geer and then retrospectively wants to believe he saw more than he did to come to terms with what he did do, is a plausible explanation that could yield a conviction.”
Why didn’t Torres or another officer use less-lethal force?
Torres was asked why he didn’t use his Taser and he correctly noted that Geer was standing behind a screen door, which would have blocked the Taser’s two electrical cords. In his interview with detectives, Torres also cracked, “You don’t take a Taser to a possible gun fight.” The use of shotgun-launched bean bags may also have been deterred by Geer’s screen door.