ALEXANDRIA — The lawyers for two U.S. Park Police officers who shot and killed the unarmed motorist Bijan Ghaisar in 2017 said Friday that they expect a decision on charges from the Justice Department within 20 days. If no charges are filed, they said it would clear the way for the government to defend the officers in a civil suit filed by Ghaisar’s family.
The comments came in a hearing in federal court in Alexandria for the lawsuit in which neither officer Alejandro Amaya nor Lucas Vinyard have filed a response since being named as defendants by Ghaisar’s parents in March. The officers’ lawyers were seeking more time to respond, because they expected the Justice Department to clear the officers in the ongoing criminal investigation and then intervene on their behalf in the civil suit, attorney Kobie Flowers said.
This was news to Ghaisar’s family, who have had no communication with the FBI or the Justice Department, which are investigating the case. U.S. Rep. Don Beyer, D-8th, expressed dismay that the government has been sharing information with the subjects of a homicide investigation but not with the family of the victim.
Amaya, 39, and Vinyard, 37, pursued Ghaisar, a 25-year-old accountant from McLean, on Nov. 17, 2017, after he had been involved in a minor fender bender minutes earlier. When Ghaisar attempted to drive around their marked sport utility vehicle after it stopped in front of his Jeep Grand Cherokee in a Fairfax County neighborhood, police video shows, Amaya and Vinyard both opened fire as the Jeep moved away from them, fatally wounding him.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Ivan Davis asked Flowers why he thought a decision on whether to charge the officers was coming in 20 days.
“This case has been investigated for 18 months,” Davis said. “In the court’s experience, the probability of the government resolving it in 20 days is slim to none.”
Flowers, representing Amaya, said he and attorney Stuart A. Sears, representing Vinyard, have been working on behalf of the officers in the criminal case and did not expect to handle the civil lawsuit, and “we’ve been involved in talks with the government.”
The FBI has handled the criminal investigation, and a decision on charges will be made by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. attorney in Washington, Jessie Liu. All have declined to discuss the case publicly or speak with Ghaisar’s family. A spokeswoman for Liu declined to comment Friday on whether a charging decision was imminent.
“You said you’ve been dealing with them for 18 months,” Davis asked Flowers. “What have they told you?”
Flowers did not want to discuss that publicly but said, “I will represent to the court that the government has represented to us that if there is no indictment, the government is going to intervene” on behalf of Amaya and Vinyard. A lawyer from the civil division of the U.S. attorney’s office in Alexandria was present for the hearing.
“Has anything happened to suspect the government’s going to make a decision in the next 20 days?” the judge asked.
“Yes, your honor,” Flowers answered. “There are discussions we’ve had with the government.” But he pointed to reporters in the courtroom and said he did not want to say why.
The attorneys then had a bench conference with Davis, who then granted a 20-day extension for Amaya and Vinyard to respond to the lawsuit. The judge did not explain why he granted the extension after his initial skepticism. Flowers declined to explain his remarks after the hearing. Neither officer was in court Friday. Both are on administrative duty with pay for the Park Police.
“This is an outrage,” said the Ghaisars’ lawyer, Thomas G. Connolly, referring to Flowers’ remarks that he has been speaking with federal prosecutors, while the Ghaisars have been kept in the dark. Connolly said the officers’ lawyers did not provide any further details in the bench conference to explain why they think a charging decision is imminent.
“I have never seen more hostility from prosecutorial authority towards the family members of the victim,” Connolly said. “They not only won’t give answers, they won’t pick up the phone.”
Ghaisar’s parents, sister and brother-in-law were in court for the hearing but declined to comment afterward.
The shooting occurred in the district of Beyer, who has co-sponsored a bill requiring federal officers to wear body cameras. The Park Police officers did not have body cameras or a camera in their car, but two Fairfax police officers captured the incident on their in-car cameras.
“For 18 months the FBI and Justice Department have shrouded their investigation of Bijan Ghaisar’s shooting in unacceptable secrecy,” Beyer said in a statement Friday, “and today’s news is among the most deplorable examples yet. If these facts are correct, government investigators refused to share the most basic details of the incident with Bijan’s parents or to discuss the matter with members of Congress, but then passed inside information about how and when they intend to resolve their investigation solely to the officers involved in the shooting.”