NEARLY TWO years to the day after Fairfax County police shot and killed John Geer in the doorway of his Springfield home, the officer who pulled the trigger, Adam D. Torres, has been indicted for second-degree murder. Whether or not the case against Mr. Torres, who was fired from the police force last month, results in conviction, there is now, at last, every indication that “justice is prevailing,” in the words of Mr. Geer’s father, Don Geer.
True, it took far too long for the system’s wheels to turn in the Geer case. And they turned only in response to pressure generated by a U.S. senator, a Virginia judge and the heat of public and political opinion.
Still, the delay, while unwarranted, does not negate the fact that the special grand jury’s indictment of Mr. Torres overturns Fairfax’s decades-long, unspoken taboo against criminally charging police officers who shoot unarmed civilians. That is a milestone in a jurisdiction, Virginia’s most populous, where in the past decade there have been 37 instances of police-involved shootings, resulting in 16 civilian deaths. It marks a breakthrough for accountability.
For understandable reasons, juries in trials have long been reluctant to convict police officers for their actions in the line of duty, even when they result in civilian deaths. Jurors understand that officers, faced with life-threatening circumstances, may be forced to make split-second decisions. Mr. Torres, who says he pulled the trigger when he saw Mr. Geer move his hands abruptly toward his waist as if going for a gun, contends he made just such a split-second decision.
What makes the case distinct is that a number of eyewitnesses at close proximity, including four other police officers, saw no such movement by Mr. Geer and no threat of danger at the moment the shot was fired. Like Mr. Torres, they had been on the scene, in broad daylight, for the 40-minute standoff in front of Mr. Geer’s house that began with a call to police for a domestic disturbance. A jury will hear all those accounts, as well as other evidence.
A jury is less likely to hear the details of the tortuous path that led to the case getting to trial. The steps along that path included a prosecutor, ostensibly concerned about conflict of interest, who tried to shift the case to the Justice Department; a U.S. senator, Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose intervention thawed what appeared to be the police department’s deep freeze on releasing information; a Fairfax judge, Randy I. Bellows, who ordered the police to disclose information to Mr. Geer’s family; and a payment of nearly $3 million by the county to settle a civil lawsuit brought by the family.
That saga bespeaks official foot-dragging so blatant that it finally triggered the ire of the county Board of Supervisors, who ordered a broad review of police policy in the aftermath of shootings by officers. And it explains why a decision on prosecution, which could and should have been taken more than a year ago, was delayed until now.