The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A last chance for real justice emerges in the Bijan Ghaisar case

Relatives of Bijan Ghaisar gather with supporters in front of the Justice Department to demand answers in his killing, on May 19, 2018, in Washington. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

The shroud of suppression, secrecy and coverup that was thrown over the killing of Bijan Ghaisar, the young accountant shot to death by U.S. Park Police officers just outside D.C., remains a stain on the justice system. Nearly five years after he was killed following a fender bender on the George Washington Memorial Parkway, in November 2017, there has been no trial and no testimony in a public criminal proceeding. Nor has there been a reckoning for the officers who, in violation of their own agency’s policies, pursued an unarmed man who represented no threat to the public or to themselves, and fired 10 bullets into his car, striking him repeatedly.

That failure of accountability and justice is what impelled seven members of Congress to write last week to Attorney General Merrick Garland, asking that the investigation into Ghaisar’s slaying be reopened. “The decision to escalate to deadly force must be explained,” they wrote. “Bijan’s family, and the public, are entitled to due process and an explanation of why their son is dead.”

As a general rule, the Justice Department should not routinely reopen investigations that have been closed without charges, lest it open the floodgates of reassessment every time a new administration takes office. Yet in the Ghaisar case, the facts and evidence are so compelling, and the Trump administration was so indifferent to police impunity, that this killing merits a new look.

A federal judge dismissed the case in October, blithely concluding that the shooting by Park Police officers Lucas Vinyard and Alejandro Amaya was “necessary and proper,” a finding preposterously at odds with the evidence visible via dashboard-camera video. Virginia’s then-attorney general, Mark R. Herring, and Fairfax County’s top prosecutor, Steve Descano, both Democrats, appealed the ruling. But the appeal was abandoned by the state’s new attorney general, Jason Miyares, a Republican who unseated Mr. Herring in last fall’s elections. Mr. Miyares announced his decision on a Friday afternoon, the traditional time at which officials take actions they hope will go unnoticed.

In fact, as the members of Congress wrote to Mr. Garland, two law enforcement officers who scrutinized the actions of Mr. Amaya and Mr. Vinyard had a very different view of the what was “necessary and proper” in the Ghaisar case. One was the former Park Police chief, Robert MacLean, who, in a deposition for a civil suit filed by Ghaisar’s parents, acknowledged that the officers should not even have pursued Ghaisar, under the department’s policies. The other was Lt. Dan Gohn, a Fairfax County police officer who tailed the pursuit and witnessed the shooting. Contradicting the Park Police officers, Lt. Gohn said Ghaisar’s driving was normal, not erratic, and Mr. Amaya had no cause to rush at Ghaisar’s car with his gun drawn, as he did repeatedly.

The lengths to which authorities have gone to prevent truth-telling in the Ghaisar case are remarkable. They are testament to what can be a near-impossibility of holding law enforcement responsible for dangerous and lethal conduct. Mr. Garland has a chance in the Ghaisar case to correct a mistake — and seek real justice.