DOJ letter outlines why US Park Police officers won’t be prosecuted for civil rights violations in Ghaisar case

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that a pair of US Park Police officers would not be prosecuted for federal civil rights violations related to the shooting death of Bijan Ghaisar.

WTOP has obtained the letter outlining the rationale behind that decision.

The letter, sent to the Ghaisar family through their lawyer, was signed by James Felte, the chief of the criminal section at the top of the Justice Department, and T. Patrick Martin, the criminal chief in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington.

It details how Ghaisar was shot at by U.S. Park Police Officers Alejandro Amaya and Lucas Vinyard 10 times, including that Amaya shot first, but that four of the five shots fired by Vinyard “were responsible for the fatal wounds” to Ghaisar’s head.

From there, the letter goes into the legal reasoning behind the decision. The two prosecutors describe that in order to press forward with charges of civil rights violations, the government would have to prove that Amaya and Vinyard intentionally shot at Ghaisar, and did so “with the specific intent to deprive him of the right to be free from an unreasonable use of force.”

It’s noted that the standard of proof for a civil rights violation is higher than what’s usually required under state law.

“Federal prosecutors would have to prove not only that an officer used force that was constitutionally unreasonable, but that he did so ‘willfully,’ which the Supreme Court has interpreted to mean he acted with a bad purpose to disregard the law.

“As this requirement has been interpreted by the courts, evidence that an officer acted out of fear, mistake, panic, misperception, negligence, or even poor judgment cannot establish the high level of intent required…”

The letter says that the government would have to “affirmatively disprove that Amaya did not act in self-defense and that Vinyard did not act in self-defense of Amaya or others. After a review of all the evidence, we are unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officers did not perceive a deadly threat, even if that perception was mistaken or the result of poor judgment.”

The letter also says that Vinyard was driving and Amaya was in the passenger seat on the day Ghaisar was killed.

The Justice Department letter doesn’t specify whether the officers volunteered to be questioned by the FBI. As suspects in a potential crime, the officers could not be compelled to answer questions that could be used as evidence against them, although they were required to answer questions posed by Park Police investigators.

At the end of the letter, the prosecutors specifically said this finding is limited to a federal civil rights prosecution and does not prevent other components of the Justice Department, as well as state prosecutors, from charging officers Amaya and Vinyard for their actions in this case.

WTOP’s Neal Augenstein contributed to this report.

John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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