FAIRFAX, Va. (AP) - Two U.S. Park Police officers were indicted Thursday on manslaughter charges in the 2017 shooting death of an unarmed motorist who led officers on a stop-and-go chase outside Washington, capping nearly three years of inquiry into a case that caused an outcry over concerns of excessive force.
The charges against officers Alejandro Amaya and Lucas Vinyard come after years of agitation by the family of Bijan Ghaisar, 25, of McLean, a Virginia suburb of the nation’s capital. Some local and federal political figures also had criticized Park Police and the FBI for sitting on the case for two years without taking action or explaining events after widely publicized dash cam video of the chase and shooting raised doubts about the officers’ conduct.
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 he was involved in a minor accident.
Ghaisar’s family expressed gratitude that charges have been filed.
“Our heavy hearts are a little lighter tonight knowing that the police officers who murdered our son and brother are closer to being held accountable for what they did,” the family said in a statement. “Too many of the people who are sworn to protect and serve our communities commit heinous acts of violence and go unpunished. With these charges we are reminded that, at least here in Fairfax County, Officers Alejandro Amaya and Lucas Vinyard are not above the law.
Federal prosecutors declined to pursue criminal charges against the officers last year, saying their actions did not rise to the level of criminality.
Following that decision, the Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office launched an investigation. The new top prosecutor, Steve Descano, was elected on a reform agenda and promised to hold police accountable for misconduct.
Vinyard and Amaya are also charged with reckless use of a firearm.
“When this incident occurred it shook our community,” Descano said in a news conference Thursday announcing the charges, Now that a grand jury has handed down indictments, “the community can now start to get answers.”
Still, he said he expects significant procedural hurdles going forward. He anticipates that the officers will seek to have the case removed to federal court because Amaya and Vinyard are federal officers. Descano said the office of Virginia Attorney Mark Herring has agreed to provide legal assistance to keep the case in state court.
Lawyers for Amaya and Vinyard did not return emails seeking comment Thursday.
Descano said the charges carry a maximum penalty of 15 years - 10 years for the manslaughter charge and 5 for the firearms charge.
Under Virginia law, the charge is technically considered involuntary manslaughter, but he said the law makes no real distinction between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. If they had not charged the officers with involuntary manslaughter, he would have had to bring a murder charge, which Descano said was not warranted without proof of malice.
Descano said the evidence was gathered entirely by Fairfax County officers, after the Justice Department refused to cooperate and provide witnesses or crucial evidence in the case.
The chase began after authorities say Ghaisar left the scene of an accident in which he had been 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, five 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.
At his press conference, Descano addressed the broader national debate over police force, particularly against people of color.
“Look around our country right now and it’s clear that many of our neighbors have lost faith in our criminal justice system,” Descano said. ”We all know our system needs reform and that our laws are often times too narrow and very particular. … We were fortunate enough that our community’s values and laws saw eye to eye today. Unfortunately, the fact that it doesn’t always play out that way remains a real problem.”
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