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Justice Department joins defense team for two Park Police officers charged with killing Bijan Ghaisar

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 12/1/2020 Tom Jackman
a group of people posing for the camera: Friends and family of Bijan Ghaisar hold a vigil at the Lincoln Memorial on the first anniversary of his fatal shooting by U.S. Park Police officers. © Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post Friends and family of Bijan Ghaisar hold a vigil at the Lincoln Memorial on the first anniversary of his fatal shooting by U.S. Park Police officers.

The Justice Department is joining the defense team of the two U.S. Park Police officers who fatally shot Bijan Ghaisar in 2017, slightly more than a year after the department decided it would not pursue federal criminal charges against the officers.

Ghaisar, 25, was shot as he sat behind the wheel of his Jeep Grand Cherokee on a residential street in Fairfax County by Park Police Officers Lucas Vinyard, 39, and Alejandro Amaya, 41. The officers have claimed they fired in self-defense, though a video of the incident appears to show Ghaisar’s Jeep slowly moving away from the officers as they started shooting.

In October, a Fairfax County special grand jury indicted the two officers on charges of involuntary manslaughter and reckless use of a firearm. A month later, attorneys for Vinyard and Amaya moved to have the case heard in federal court in Alexandria because they are federal officers. Legal experts expect that Senior U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton will grant that motion and that Vinyard and Amaya will then seek to have the criminal charges dismissed under the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Prosecuting Park Police officers faces in Bijan Ghaisar slaying faces significant legal hurdle

The supremacy clause holds that federal laws take precedence over state laws. In more than 100 years of legal rulings on the issue of charging federal officers in state courts, judges have analyzed the officers’ actions on the basis of whether they reasonably believed their actions were “necessary and proper” to performing their federal duty.

Vinyard and Amaya already have private attorneys in the case. But the federal government may send “any officer” of the Justice Department “to attend to the interests of the United States” in any pending legal action in state or federal court, under federal law. And because the officers are “asserting a federal immunity defense,” according to motions filed by the government — the officers have not yet raised any defense in state or federal court — the Justice Department is assigning a lawyer to manage the government’s interests.

The lawyer is John Blair Fishwick Martin, of the constitutional and specialized torts litigation section of the Justice Department’s civil division. Martin is licensed in New York and not in Virginia, so the Justice Department had to seek permission from Hilton to allow him to handle cases in the Alexandria federal court, which Hilton granted Monday.

The motions do not specify what the government’s interests in the prosecution of Vinyard and Amaya are, though it could be to help defend the officers against the criminal charges, or to ensure the supremacy clause arguments are properly made on their behalf. Martin did not respond to a request for comment.

Travis D. Tull, Amaya’s attorney, said he believed the government’s interests “are currently in line with those of the defendants” and that he “wouldn’t be surprised to see a memorandum in support of the expected motion to dismiss the state charges based on the supremacy clause and federal officer immunity.” Tull said he did not know if Martin would stay on the case if Hilton did not dismiss the criminal charges.

Daniel Crowley, Vinyard’s attorney, declined to comment, as did Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve T. Descano and lawyers for the Ghaisar family.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Alexandria declined to join the case because it is already defending the two officers in a civil suit filed by the Ghaisars. That case, also being heard by Hilton, was scheduled for trial last month, but Hilton postponed it after the criminal indictment was handed up in Fairfax.

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