ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — A judge on Friday placed the prosecution of two U.S. Park Police officers accused of fatally shooting an unarmed motorist in Virginia under federal jurisdiction.
State and local prosecutors argued unsuccessfully at a hearing in U.S. District Court in Alexandria that the involuntary manslaughter cases against officers Alejandro Amaya and Lucas Vinyard should remain in the Virginia court system.
The ruling from U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton means local prosecutors can still pursue the case, but it will be heard in federal court rather than state court.
Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano obtained indictments last year against Amaya and Vinyard in the 2017 shooting death of Bijan Ghaisar, 25, of McLean, after a stop-and-go chase on the George Washington Memorial Parkway near the nation’s capital.
Descano indicted the pair after the Justice Department opted against filing criminal charges. The federal investigation of the shooting languished for years, and prompted accusations from Ghaisar’s family and numerous elected officials that federal authorities were stonewalling.
Federal authorities declined to cooperate in the local grand jury’s investigation.
The officers sought to have the case removed from state jurisdiction, citing their status as federal officers. They argued that they have immunity from state prosecution under the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution because they were acting as federal officers when the shooting happened.
State and local prosecutors say the officers can’t claim immunity because their conduct went well beyond the reasonable actions of a police officer. Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring’s office joined Descano in arguing to keep the case in Fairfax County Circuit Court.
Ghasar was fatally shot in November 2017 after authorities say he left the scene of an accident after being rear-ended.
Dashcam video released by Fairfax County Police, who played a supporting role in the chase, shows the chase beginning 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, officers with guns drawn approach the car at the driver’s-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.
After the hearing, Descano and Herring issued a joint statement saying they were disappointed in the ruling but emphasizing that “today’s decision will keep this case moving forward toward finally getting justice for Bijan Ghaisar and his family.”