Justice Dept. says it won’t reopen Ghaisar investigation

The Justice Department on Friday said it would not reopen the investigation into the case of Bijan Ghaisar, the unarmed motorist who was shot by U.S. Park Police in 2017.

The department said in a statement that “there was insufficient evidence to establish a willful violation” of the statute, which was the same position it had in 2019.

“To prevail under the federal civil rights statute, the Justice Department must prove that an officer, acting under color of law, willfully used unreasonable force,” the statement said. “To establish willfulness, federal authorities must show that the officer acted with the deliberate and specific intent to do something the law forbids. This is one of the highest standards of intent imposed by law. Mistake, misperception, negligence or poor judgment are not sufficient to establish a federal criminal civil rights violation.”

Park Police officers Lucas Vinyard and Alejandro Amaya shot and killed Ghaisar, 25, of McLean, Virginia, on Nov. 17, 2017, after a brief chase on and off the George Washington Parkway.

In a statement, the Ghaisar family called the department’s decision “a betrayal to our family and to justice.”

The Ghaisar family statement went on to say:

“There is frame-by-frame video showing Officers Amaya and Vinyard violently out of control before they gunned down Bijan at close range. This was not poor judgment or negligence, this was a willful, deadly escalation of excessive violence by two federal law enforcement officers who shot 10 times at Bijan –the last two shots fired after two bullets had already pierced his head and his Jeep was rolling into a ditch. This devastating outcome is made worse by the Department’s callous treatment of our family, never once granting our requests for meetings or information about the investigation into our son’s murder.”

The Ghaisar family and seven members of Congress called on the Justice Department to reopen the investigation last month, saying that the civil lawsuit the family had filed had uncovered evidence that wasn’t available to federal prosecutors in 2019.

Among the new evidence: Robert MacLean, who was chief of the Park Police at the time of the shooting, was asked in a 2020 deposition, “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.”

Daniel Gohn, who was a Fairfax County police officer at the time and saw the shooting, also testified in 2020 that he didn’t see Ghaisar’s Jeep driving erratically, that it was only going slightly over the speed limit, and that at one point in the chase, Ghaisar stopped at a stop sign. He also said one of the Park Police officers banged on the window of Ghaisar’s Jeep with his gun. Gohn later told the FBI, “You don’t do that.”

The officers were charged in Virginia with manslaughter. Their case was moved to federal court, where it was dismissed; the judge agreed with the officers that they were covered under 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 said in April that he wouldn’t pursue prosecution of the two officers, saying they faced a “life-or-death situation.”

Evidence released last year shows that the officers knew that Ghaisar was unarmed, and that he wasn’t at fault in the fender-bender they had been originally called to investigate.

Later Friday, the six D.C.-area Congress members, all Democrats, who asked for the investigation to be reopened — Reps. Don Beyer, Jennifer Wexton and Gerry Connolly and Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, all of Virginia; and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, of D.C., said in a statement, “Nearly five years after he was killed, Bijan’s family, friends, and community still are no closer to an understanding of how the events of that night could justify his being shot to death by police. We are thinking of the Ghaisar family today, and will continue to stand with them in their pursuit of justice.”

The timeline

The officers that night believed that Ghaisar was under the influence after he failed to pull over,  continued speeding, and did not acknowledge the officers when they pulled alongside him despite lights, sirens and verbal commands, documents say.

Park Police requested assistance from Fairfax County during the pursuit, and a county police officer recorded the chase on his dash camera, which was released in 2018.

While on Tulane Drive in the Belle Haven area, Amaya pulled alongside Ghaisar and got out of the patrol vehicle. With his gun drawn, he told Ghaisar to exit his vehicle. Documents showed Ghaisar put his hands over his face when the officers pulled up next to him. Amaya tried to open Ghaisar’s car door to arrest him but it was locked, so he ordered Ghaisar to unlock it.

But Ghaisar took off while Amaya’s hands were still on Ghaisar’s door, court documents said. That’s when a Fairfax County police officer asked for assistance from the police helicopter.

Vinyard then pulled Ghaisar over in a residential neighborhood off the GW Parkway. Amaya again got out of his vehicle with his gun drawn and yelling commands at Ghaisar, who put his hands over his face. When Amaya tried to open Ghaisar’s car door, Ghaisar again took off.

At the intersection of Fort Hunt Road and Alexandria Avenue, the officers again pulled Ghaisar over. Vinyard and Amaya exited the patrol car with guns drawn. Vinyard stood to the left of Ghaisar’s driver-side window, while Amaya was between the patrol car and Ghaisar’s Jeep. Both were shouting commands at Ghaisar.

The document said that Ghasar’s vehicle lurched forward toward Amaya. Amaya said he feared for his life and fired his gun through the windshield of Ghaisar’s car, which initially stopped but moved forward again. That’s when both officers fired at Ghaisar.

WTOP’s Abigail Constantino and Megan Cloherty contributed to this report.

Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2013 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He's the author of "A Walking Tour of the Georgetown Set" and "I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival."

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