FALLS CHURCH, Va. (AP) - A federal judge on Friday tossed out involuntary manslaughter charges against two U.S. Park Police officers who fatally shot an unarmed motorist in northern Virginia four years ago.
U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton issued an opinion declaring the actions of officers Lucas Vinyard and Alejandro Amaya "necessary and proper" in the shooting of 25-year-old Bijan Ghaisar in November 2017.
Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano charged both officers with involuntary manslaughter last year, after the Justice Department declined to bring any criminal charges.
Both officers claimed their status as federal officers granted them immunity from local prosecution, and Hilton agreed in Friday’s ruling.
Hilton wrote that the officers were entitled to immunity as long as the officers were authorized under federal law to act as they did, and that their actions were no more than necessary and proper under the circumstances.
Hilton said that both officers reasonably feared that Amaya could be struck and killed after attempting to stop Ghaisar’s Jeep, and it instead lurched forward in the direction of Amaya.
"(T)here is no evidence that the officers acted with malice, criminal intent, or any improper motivation," Hilton wrote.
Descano and Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, who also argued that the manslaughter case should be allowed to proceed, said in a joint statement that they will appeal Hilton’s ruling to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.
"We believe that a jury should have the opportunity to hear all of the evidence and determine whether these men committed a crime when they shot and killed Bijan Ghaisar," they said.
Ghaisar was fatally shot after authorities say he left the scene of an accident on the George Washington Memorial Parkway outside the nation’s capital and led officers on a stop-and-go chase.
Dashcam video released by Fairfax County Police, which played a supporting role in the chase, shows the pursuit starting on the parkway, then continuing 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, the officers again approach with guns drawn, and Amaya stands in front of the driver’s door. When the car starts to move, Amaya opens fire. Seconds later, when the car begins moving again, both Amaya and Vinyard fire multiple shots.
The FBI conducted an investigation that stretched two years before federal prosecutors declined to bring charges — Ghaisar’s family and some members of Congress faulted the investigation for a lack of transparency and accountability.