Attorney General Merrick Garland, in a break from his predecessors in the Trump administration, is allowing federal agents to cooperate with local prosecutors pursuing manslaughter charges against two U.S. Park Police officers who fatally shot a Virginia man after a stop-and-go chase in 2017.
In a June 1 letter to Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring and Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Steve Descano, Garland said the federal government “will share with the Commonwealth all appropriate information and evidence” in the investigation into the death of Bijan Ghaisar.
Garland's letter is the latest twist in a nearly four-year legal saga following the shooting death of Ghaisar, 25, of McLean. Federal authorities investigated the shooting for two years and revealed little of what they found; they ultimately decided against filing criminal charges against the two officers who shot Ghaisar, Lucas Vinyard and Alejandro Amaya.
When the feds opted against filing charges, Fairfax County prosecutors launched their own investigation. In October 2020, a Fairfax County grand jury indicted the pair on involuntary manslaughter charges. They obtained the indictment without cooperation from federal agents who possessed key evidence, Descano said.
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But lawyers for the officers had the case pulled out of local court and moved to federal court. They argue that the Constitution provides the federal officers immunity from the state charges; their detailed legal arguments were due in court Tuesday.
Garland's letter came in response to a letter sent last month by Herring and Descano asking Garland to reconsider the original decision against prosecuting the officers.
Garland's response makes no mention of pursuing federal charges, but cooperation from federal agents could make it easier for local officers to build their case.
Ghaisar was fatally shot by the officers in November 2017 following a chase on the George Washington Parkway, outside the nation’s capital in northern Virginia, after a fender bender in which Ghaisar's car was rear-ended.
Dashcam video released by Fairfax County Police, who played a supporting role in the chase, shows the chase beginning on the parkway before turning into a residential neighborhood. It shows the car driven by Ghaisar stopping twice during the chase, and officers approaching the car with guns drawn. In both cases, Ghaisar drives off.
At the third and final stop, officers with guns drawn approach the car at the driver-side door. When the car starts to move again, gunshots are heard. The car starts to drift into a ditch, and two more sets of two gunshots are heard.
In court documents made public as part of a civil suit filed by Ghaisar’s family, Vinyard told FBI agents who interviewed him after the shooting that he and Amaya gave Ghaisar “chance after chance” to surrender peacefully before opening fire.
Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., who has been critical of federal inaction over Ghaisar's death, praised Garland's decision in a statement Tuesday.
“For years under the previous administration the Justice Department shrouded this case in an unacceptable level of opacity, stonewalling every attempt to establish the truth. Now we have reason to hope that a new era of accountability and transparency has arrived.” said Beyer, whose district was the scene of Ghaisar's killing.