Capitol Hill lawmakers are calling on the Justice Department to revisit the Bijan Ghaisar case, citing, in part, new evidence.
In the weeks after unarmed motorist Bijan Ghaisar was fatally shot by U.S. Park Police in November 2017, a Fairfax County police officer told the FBI he didn’t see a Park Police officer bang the butt of his pistol on the window of Ghaisar’s Jeep, during the first of three traffic stops.
Daniel Gohn, who was a Fairfax County police officer at the time, and saw the shooting, told the FBI, “You don’t do that.”
In 2019 the Justice Department declined to press charges against two U.S. Park Police officers who fatally shot unarmed driver Bijan Ghaisar in Nov. 2017.
On Wednesday, seven members of Congress asked the Justice Department to revisit the case, in part, because of new evidence that wasn’t available when the Justice Department decided against filing federal charges against officers Lucas Vinyard and Alejandro Amaya.
Eight months later, after viewing dashcam video from his cruiser that captured the Park Police pursuit of Ghaisar’s Jeep down George Washington Parkway and eventual shooting in the Fort Hunt section of Alexandria, Gohn said the officer did pound his service weapon on the window, possibly frightening Ghaisar, before he drove away.
The lawmakers asked Attorney General Merrick Garland to revisit the Ghaisar case for possible civil rights violations, saying the officer’s updated recollection, as well as comments from former Park Police Chief Robert McLean “may cast new light on the events of that tragic evening.”
The letter was signed by seven Democratic members of Congress: Reps. Don Beyer, Jennifer Wexton and Gerry Connolly, all from Virginia, and Raul Grijalva, of Arizona; Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, of D.C., and Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, of Virginia.
In a sworn deposition given on July 27, 2020, as part of the Ghaisar family’s lawsuit, Gohn said after viewing the dashcam video, he realized an officer had pounded on the Jeep window with his gun..
Under questioning from a Ghaisar family attorney, Gohn reiterated what he told the FBI — that he was surprised to see Park Police officers run up to the Jeep, and pound on Ghaisar’s window while ordering him to get out, since they weren’t certain what risks might be in the car.
In his deposition, Gohn said he initially told the FBI he would have remembered if the Park Police officers had used their guns to bang on the window, because it went against his training.
“You can have an accidental discharge, you can disable your gun. The gun can be knocked out of your hand. The gun is not a hammer,” Gohn told Ghaisar’s attorney.
Gohn recalled telling the FBI, officers typically would remain in a safe location, and have the driver of a vehicle slowly move toward the officer: “For my safety, I wouldn’t go up to the vehicle. I would have then called the driver back to me.”
Ghaisar’s attorney asked a pointed question, suggesting a reason Ghaisar might have driven away after the first traffic stop: “Do you understand where a person who might have been involved in a minor traffic accident upon seeing someone run up to the side of his Jeep with a gun pointed at his head would have been frightened by these officers?
“That is a possibility,” said Gohn.
In a separate deposition on July 24, 2020, Robert MacLean, who was chief of the Park Police at the time of the shooting, was asked, “Did you see anything on the video that would constitute a felony that would justify pursuit?”
MacLean answered, “I did not.” He also confirmed the policy held that “fleeing or eluding the police shall not itself be a pursuable offense.”
After the Justice Department declined to press federal charges against Amaya and Vinyard, the two were indicted in Fairfax County, April 2021, on state manslaughter and weapons charges.
Contacted by WTOP, Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano was asked if grand jurors had been made aware of Gohn’s observations of the officer pounding on Ghaisar’s window with the butt of his gun before their decision to indict the officers.
“I prefer not to answer, because what we’re asking for is for the Department of Justice to relook at this case, and potentially reopen it, and I don’t want to say anything, publicly, that would influence that in a negative way, or make any future investigation or prosecution, suspect,” Descano said.
Vinyard and Amaya’s attorneys successfully argued to have the case transferred to federal court, since they are federal law enforcement officers.
U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton tossed out the charges in October 2021, saying Vinyard and Amaya were protected by the Supremacy Clause, which argues that federal officers cannot be prosecuted for state crimes they committed while carrying out their official duties, if the officer “reasonably thought” the actions were necessary and proper.
Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares last month said he wouldn’t pursue prosecution of the two officers, saying they faced a “life-or-death situation.”
In the letter to Garland, the lawmakers said the dismissal of the manslaughter and weapons charges doesn’t relate to the new information: “This case was only dismissed at the district level because of the Supremacy Clause immunity, an issue that does not apply if the case is brought by the federal government.”
“The decision to escalate to deadly force must be explained,” lawmakers wrote. “It is unconscionable to think such a low-level offense could justify being shot to death by police.”