It is a truism that police officers who cause deaths are rarely charged or convicted of a crime, except in the most extraordinary circumstances. The unwarranted killing in 2017 of Bijan Ghaisar, an unarmed young accountant shot to death by two U.S. Park Police officers after a fender bender, was just such an extraordinary circumstance.
Those two officers, Lucas Vinyard and Alejandro Amaya, were indicted Thursday by a Virginia special grand jury in Ghaisar’s death; each was charged with a single count of manslaughter and reckless discharge of a firearm. If convicted, the officers could face prison terms of up to 15 years.
There are truisms, and then there are plain truths. The commonwealth’s attorney in Fairfax County, Steve Descano, expressed one of the latter in a statement. Ghaisar’s actions on the night of Nov. 17, 2017, he said, should not “have led to his death.”
That it has taken nearly three years to bring charges against the two officers is mind-boggling evidence of the extent to which law enforcement officers so often elude justice, at least timely justice. Clear video footage of the incident, in which the officers, with guns drawn, rush at Ghaisar’s car as it rolls slowly away from them — despite the fact that he presented no apparent threat to them, himself or others — is a display of rogue, trigger-happy law enforcement. To suggest the officers were justified in firing their weapons 10 times into Ghaisar’s vehicle, hitting him four times in the head, is to contend that police are beyond the scope of justice.
Descano, elected a year ago as the top prosecutor in Virginia’s most populous locality, took a judicious approach with the grand jury, following nine months of reviewing the evidence. He sought a manslaughter charge because, he said, “I don’t believe the evidence would show the essential element for murder, which requires malice.”
Until now, impunity has been the common thread in the aftermath of Ghaisar’s death. A two-year FBI investigation produced some 11,000 documents, to supplement the dash-cam video that was recorded by a Fairfax County police patrol car that tailed the U.S. Park Police vehicle and Ghaisar’s car during a brief pursuit following the fender bender. Despite that cascade of evidence, the U.S. attorney’s office in D.C. and the Justice Department declined to charge the two officers.
In pursuing the case against them, Descano has taken a momentous step toward accountability and justice. The path ahead is unlikely to be easy. Almost certainly, the defendants will assert that as federal officers, they are immune under the Constitution’s supremacy clause from being charged by state prosecutors.
Descano says his office is prepared to argue that point in federal court. If and when it comes to that, the jousting between lawyers on each side may turn on arcane jurisprudence and precedent, given the unusual context of state prosecutors attempting to press criminal charges against federal officers. But the basic question will be straightforward: Will a man’s unwarranted killing by police be subject to accountability in a court of law? In a rational world, it should be.