Two U.S. Park Police officers who fatally shot unarmed motorist Bijan Ghaisar in 2017 will not be charged with any crimes in connection with the incident, federal prosecutors said Thursday. The decision came just days before the two-year anniversary of the slaying.
Officers Alejandro Amaya and Lucas Vinyard pursued Ghaisar down the George Washington Memorial Parkway shortly after 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 17, 2017, after he left the scene of a fender bender in Alexandria.
Ghaisar, 25, briefly stopped twice and then drove away, video released by Fairfax County police shows. After a third stop, Ghaisar again pulled away as Vinyard and Amaya aimed their guns at him, the video shows, and the officers fired nine times into Ghaisar's Jeep.
In a statement, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District, which has been investigating the case, said they "cannot prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the two USPP officers committed willful violations of the applicable federal criminal civil rights statute when they shot Mr. Ghaisar."
The Park Police never explained why the officers shot Ghaisar. Police also did not publicly identify the officers; their names were revealed in a civil lawsuit filed by the Ghaisar family in federal court in Alexandria. In that civil suit, the officers contend they fired in self-defense.
Ghaisar's family, with the support of Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Mark Warner, D-Va., and others, had repeatedly pressed for details of the investigation in the months and years following the shooting. Family and friends demonstrated outside the Justice Department repeatedly and outside the Interior Department. They are planning a vigil at the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday to mark the second anniversary of Ghaisar's death.
The shooting also prompted legislation that would require federal officers to wear body cameras.
The family was notified of the decision in a letter hand-delivered to their lawyer, Roy Austin, shortly after 3 p.m. Thursday, Austin said. The Ghaisars, who appeared earlier in the day with Warner on the Kojo Nnamdi radio show on WAMU-FM, were preparing a statement.
"This is not justice," said Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., who had helped the family push for answers and sponsored legislation requiring federal police to use cameras. "The Justice Department failed our community for two years by withholding answers about why police killed Bijan Ghaisar, but this final failure is the worst of all." He said "all available evidence including video of the event contradicts Liu's conclusion that no crime occurred.
Ghaisar was an accountant with no criminal history, born and raised in Northern Virginia. He graduated from Langley High School and Virginia Commonwealth University, lived by himself in an apartment in Tysons Corner and worked for his father's accounting firm in McLean. He was single with no children.
Ghaisar's family said he was shot four times in the head. The Park Police waited five hours before notifying Ghaisar's parents he'd been shot, and they did not tell them who was involved, the Ghaisars said. No weapon was found in Ghaisar's Jeep.
Ghaisar lived for 10 days before he was removed from life support on Nov. 27, 2017, in the same hospital where he was born.
Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin Roessler later released the videos from his officers. The FBI took over the case and the U.S. attorney's office in Alexandria recused itself from handling any prosecution.
U.S. Attorney Jessie Liu issued a statement which said the FBI had interviewed more than 150 people in its investigation. Liu said the government had to prove that the officers acted "willfully" to deprive Ghaisar of a Constitutional right, in this case his Fourth Amendment right to not be unreasonably seized.
Liu said the Supreme Court has interpreted that "to mean they 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 a federal civil rights violation.
The statement did not comment on the officers' state of mind at the time of the shooting, and there was no indication whether Vinyard or Amaya were interviewed by the FBI. As suspects in a criminal case, they are not required to speak to criminal investigators, though they will be required to speak to Park Police internal investigators.
Park Police policy states that "an officer may use deadly force only when necessary," and only when they have a "reasonable belief" that the subject "poses an imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm to the officer or to another person." The use of deadly force on "fleeing felons" is only justified, the department policy states, if "the individual has committed a felony involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical injury or death and the escape of the individual would pose an imminent threat of serious physical harm."
Similarly, Park Police policy discourages the firing of guns at moving vehicles. "Officers shall not fire at a moving vehicle," the policy states, "except when the officer has a reasonable belief that the subject poses an imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to the officer or to another person."
Little is known publicly about Vinyard and Amaya, who are both married with children. Amaya has been a Park Police officer since September 2009. Vinyard has been a Park Police officer since September 2007.
Amaya and Vinyard declined to comment when contacted by The Washington Post in August 2018. Both officers were initially placed on leave with pay, then placed on administrative duty with pay, the Park Police said.
The lawsuit against the officers and the Park Police is still pending in federal court in Alexandria. An internal investigation of Amaya and Vinyard, which was stayed pending the determination on charges, can now move forward.