A federal judge will decide whether two U.S. Park Police officers deserve immunity and a dismissal of state charges in the 2017 killing of unarmed Virginia driver Bijan Ghaisar.
Officer Alejandro Amaya and Lucas Vinyard’s attorneys argued in U.S. District Court in Alexandria that the federal officers qualify for immunity from the state charges and asked the judge to dismiss a Fairfax County jury’s manslaughter indictment against both officers.
The Supremacy Clause, established by the Supreme Court, asserts simply the supremacy of federal law over state law. Under Supremacy Clause immunity, federal officers cannot be prosecuted for state crimes they committed while carrying out their official duties and if the officer “reasonably thought” his actions were necessary and proper.
The courtroom was thrown a curveball when after just a few hours into the hearing of evidence, Judge Claude M. Hilton adjourned court with a plan to rule on the matter at a later date.
“I think we were surprised because we thought this was going to be an actual evidentiary hearing. They had set aside four entire days in court to go through the evidence,” said Bijan Ghaisar’s sister, Negeen Ghaisar, following the hearing Monday, Aug. 23.
She and her parents were visibly emotional in the courtroom. Tears rolled down her cheek and into her mask as the prosecution played the dashcam video of the U.S. Park Police officers shooting the 25-year-old after a stop-and-go pursuit in November 2017.
Ghaisar “was rear-ended and he’s now dead at the hands of Lucas Vinyard and Alejandro Amaya,” Virginia Deputy Solicitor General Michelle Kallen said, arguing that the local Virginia charges should stand and that the officers should face a jury.
Kallen argued there were multiple issues to be decided at trial including a dispute of facts in the case, such as whether Ghaisar’s vehicle was moving toward Officer Amaya when he opened fire, or away from him. There is also a dispute over whether Ghaisar was driving erratically the night he was shot.
Amaya and Vinyard pursued Ghaisar in November 2017, after he drove away from a fender-bender in Alexandria. The officers followed Ghaisar down the George Washington Memorial Parkway, signaling for him to pull over, which he did twice before driving off. At the third stop, in a residential neighborhood, Ghaisar was shot.
“He subjectively thought he was in danger,” Jonathan Fahey, the attorney for Amaya, argued in reference to Ghaisar’s car moving during the third and final traffic stop.
Both Fahey and Vinyard’s attorney asked the judge to dismiss the manslaughter indictment of both officers, arguing that they deserve supremacy clause immunity, in part because they were carrying out their duties as federal officers and that the shooting lacked malice.
“Neither [Amaya or Vineyard] acted with any motive other than to do his job,” Fahey said.
The attorneys cited experts who were standing by willing to testify to the training U.S. Park Police receive, including “when in doubt, pull it out,” referencing the use of a firearm. However, the witnesses were never called.
“They followed their general orders and they followed their training,” Fahey said in arguing that his client, Amaya, acted reasonably and in his capacity as a federal officer — which must be proven to fall under supremacy clause immunity.
Ghaisar’s sister was disappointed by the lack of empathy and evidence she felt was presented by the defense regarding the shooting.
“There was no discussion of the fact that my little brother was shot four times in the head,” she said.
She expects, regardless of the judge’s ruling on the officers’ immunity, the decision will be appealed.
“As far as I’m concerned, you know, this is the last trick they have, which is to say, you know, to basically murder my brother again,” she said. “And just try to make up some other story about another reason why it might have been OK that you had to murder someone.”
The judge did not indicate when he plans to issue a ruling.
Outside the courthouse on Monday, Fairfax Commonwealth’s attorney Steve Descano said he was not entirely surprised by the result of the hearing, but hopes the judge’s ruling will favor the Ghaisar family.
”From our perspective, we stand by the promise that I made when I indicted this case, which was we were going to do everything, we’re going to knock on every possible door to bring this case forward, get it in front of the jury and hopefully get justice for Bijan,” he said.
Following the hearing, Attorney General Mark Herring and Descano issued a joint statement:
“We remain confident in the merits of the Commonwealth’s case against the U.S. Park Police officers who took Bijan Ghaisar’s life. We will continue to do everything in our power to hold them accountable and pursue justice on behalf of the community and the Ghaisar Family.”