Two U.S. Park Police officers have been indicted in the fatal shooting of McLean resident Bijan Ghaisar in 2017, Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano announced on Thursday (Oct. 15).
A grand jury handed down indictments with one charge of manslaughter and one for reckless discharge of a firearm against Officers Alejandro Amaya and Lucas W. Vinyard, who remain on paid administrative duty following the shooting, according to The Washington Post.
The indictments represent one of the first significant steps toward legal action against the officers involved in Ghaisar’s killing, a saga that has now spanned three years as his family, the McLean community, and elected officials have criticized the Park Police and FBI for the pace and lack of transparency of their investigations.
“Justice has not yet come for the Ghaisar family, but today is a major step forward in that journey,” Descano said in a statement announcing the indictments. “That journey has a number of steps to go.”
A 25-year-old Langley High School who lived in Tysons and worked as an accountant in McLean, Ghaisar was reportedly involved in a hit-and-run crash in Alexandria on Nov. 17, 2017 that drew the attention of nearby Park Police officers, resulting in an extended car chase on George Washington Memorial Parkway.
An in-car camera video taken by Fairfax County police officers who joined the pursuit as backup showed two Park Police officers, who have since been identified as Amaya and Vinyard, firing into Ghaisar’s vehicle multiple times after he stopped at the intersection of Fort Hunt Road and Alexandria Avenue.
Ghaisar died at Inova Fairfax Hospital on Nov. 28, 2017 after spending 10 days in a coma.
While the main investigation of the shooting was handled by the FBI, the Fairfax County Police Department conducted an internal investigation that determined none of its officers had fired their weapons. Chief Ed Roessler released the video footage of the incident in January 2018.
Federal prosecutors with the U.S. Department of Justice ultimately announced in November 2019 that they would not pursue charges against Amaya and Vinyard.
Descano announced on Jan. 30 that the Fairfax County Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney would investigate Ghaisar’s shooting, and he eventually convened a special grand jury in September.
The Justice Department’s refusal to produce witnesses for the grand jury and a potential trial has complicated Fairfax County’s investigation, according to Descano, who thanks Roessler and the FCPD for providing evidence and assisting with the case.
“I wish this could have been done in a faster fashion,” Descano said. “However, there is no shortcut to justice. This is a very complex and nuanced case. The pursuit of these indictments involved the careful review of over 11,000 pieces of documentary evidence, the chasing down of additional evidence, and the conducting of in-person interviews and discussions in the midst of a global pandemic.”
Because the defendants are federal officers, Descano says he anticipates that they will file motions to move the case to federal court within the next 30 days.
He also expects the federal government to seek a dismissal on the basis of the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, which gives federal laws and powers precedence over those of a state.
According to The Washington Post, a civil wrongful death lawsuit against the Park Police that Ghaisar’s family filed with the U.S. District Court in Alexandria in August 2018 is scheduled to go to trial on Nov. 16.
Image via Fairfax County Police Department
The Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano said his overworked, understaffed office is in a state of crisis, which could have deep ramifications for public safety.
“Potentially innocent people could be wrongfully convicted, or guilty people could be left on the street, making our community more vulnerable,” he told the Board of Supervisors in a meeting on Tuesday.
The short-term solution he proposed involves hiring 20 staff for about $2 million. He said this would ensure the office does not fall behind when felony trials resume in November, after being postponed since March due to the coronavirus. The 20 staff would not be enough, for example, to handle the influx of potential evidence that would need independent review if every police officer starts wearing a body camera.
To ramp up the number of cases his office can prosecute thoroughly and ethically, Descano said he needs 137 attorneys and support staff, which would cost $19.1 million.
Fairfax County Board of Supervisors said they were surprised to hear Descano’s claim of unethical prosecutions and were experiencing a case of “sticker shock,” said Supervisor James R. Walkinshaw, of Braddock District.
“I think we’re all in a state of shock here,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeffrey C. McKay said.
A plan would need to be developed to address how these changes would impact other areas of law enforcement and justice, including the police department and the Fairfax County Attorney’s office, he said.
“While it is an emergency, we cannot respond to it like an emergency,” McKay said.
Supervisor John Foust, the Dranesville District Representative, told Descano: “You’ve found the problem, but I’m not sure you’ve identified the solution.”
The Office of the Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney prosecutes crimes that occur in Fairfax County and felonies that occur in Fairfax City and the towns of Herndon and Vienna. It tries cases in the county’s district and circuit courts, as well as the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court. The office works closely with state, county and local police departments.
But over the course of the year, Descano said he has had to cut back the number and scope of cases his office can prosecute.
The issue is a lack of state and local funding. Fairfax — the biggest jurisdiction in the state — receives less state funding in part because it tries to divert defendants from the criminal justice system. The state funds positions based on the number of defendants who make it to court and the number who are sentenced, Descano said.
He says local funding is low compared to surrounding jurisdictions, which spend up to four times what Fairfax County spends.
“A resident of Fairfax County can spend more on a gallon of milk than on the prosecution of crimes,” he said.
The ratio of officers to prosecutors is also imbalanced: For every prosecutor, there are 33 sworn officers making arrests, meaning prosecutors cannot keep up with the rate of arrests.
“We don’t have the time to do the cases properly,” he said. “The only way to give us more time is to add more staff. The reason we need this is without time, bad things can happen.”
These “bad things” include focusing on getting dockets cleared and farming out independent reviews of evidence to police officers.
“In essence, there were officers making case decisions as if they were attorneys, without the independent review of attorneys,” he said. “We like to think that has never happened in Fairfax County, but I’ve seen evidence that that has happened.”
Supervisor Pat Herrity, the Springfield District Representative, said he needs an executive session to be shown where the ethical issues are.
“I had not heard that before this issue came up and I think we ought to peel the onion on that skin a little bit,” he said.
Deputy County Executive David Rohrer, a former police chief for Fairfax County, defended previous commonwealth’s attorneys as well as the police department.
“I only observed the highest integrity and ethics in their staff,” he said.
Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney-elect Steve Descano has revealed his first two planned appointments.
Descano announced last Wednesday (Nov. 27) that he intends to have Terry Adams, a private defense attorney in Arlington, take on the role of Chief Deputy, lauding his 14 years working on criminal and civil cases in Virginia.
“A clear and well-respected leader, Terry is a proven litigator with years of trial experience in Northern Virginia,” Descano said in the press release. “In addition, he would bring a well-rounded background and unique perspective to the position that will prove vital in helping to transform and lead this office forward.”
Previously, Adams worked in the Arlington County Sheriff’s Office and was on active duty in the Marine Corps for eight years, according to the press release.
Descano also announced that he plans to promote Senior Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Jessica Greis Edwardson to Deputy.
Greis Edwardson started working in the office of the commonwealth’s attorney in Fairfax County in 2009, where she was the first dedicated domestic violence prosecutor, according to the press release.
More from the press release:
She currently represents the Commonwealth in the prosecution of all violations of criminal law, specializing in homicides, sex crimes against children and adults, child pornography and exploitation cases, and domestic violence.
Ms. Greis Edwardson has been co-chair of the Fairfax County Domestic Violence Fatality Review Team since 2009, and serves on the County’s Domestic Violence Prevention Policy & Coordinating Council. She has trained judges, attorneys, law enforcement, advocates, and community service providers on criminal and civil legal issues in her areas of specialization.
Prior to joining the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office, Ms. Greis Edwardson spent three years at Legal Services of Northern Virginia and two years at Potomac Legal Aid Society, representing domestic violence victims in all aspects of domestic relations litigation, and supervising and training staff attorneys. Ms. Greis Edwardson also spent two years at a private law firm.
“I am extremely proud to announce Jessica Greis Edwardson, Esq. as my choice for Deputy in the Office of Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney. I respect and thank Ms. Greis Edwardson for her service to this community and her eagerness to continue to do so. Her experience, specifically in this courthouse with the toughest cases, makes Ms. Greis Edwardson a clear choice for leadership. As we establish an appropriate path forward for this office’s growth, structure, and policies, I know Jessica will be essential,” said Mr. Descano.
Both Adams and Greis Edwardson are immediately named to the Descano Transition Team. Mr. Adams will be leading the division of the Transition Team that is primarily focused on office personnel and structure. Ms. Greis Edwardson will serve within that division.
Additional announcements regarding Office leadership are forthcoming.
This op-ed was submitted by Steve Descano, the Democratic nominee for Fairfax County’s Commonwealth’s Attorney and former prosecutor for U.S. Department of Justice under the Obama administration. It does not reflect the opinions of Tysons Reporter. We publish op-eds and letters to the editor of specific interest to the Tysons community. Contributions may be edited for length or content.
The national conversation on immigration can be debilitating. While national politics on this issue is a catastrophe, local District Attorneys can implement policies in their offices to protect our immigrant communities.
Fairfax County’s next Commonwealth’s Attorney (Virginia’s version of a District Attorney) will lead a criminal justice system larger than seven states and the District of Columbia. The foreign-born population of Fairfax County makes up about 30% of its population of 1.1 million.
Where you come from doesn’t give you less of a right to fair treatment under the criminal justice system. Additionally, because prosecutors have the potential to touch so many when it comes to immigration, they must take the lead.
Immigrant populations are often vulnerable to a criminal justice system that does not treat them in the same way as non-immigrants. If we want Fairfax County to continue to be welcoming and for diversity to be a central characteristic of the community, then those values need to be reflected in the criminal justice system.
District Attorneys can change the way their offices interact with ICE and other immigration officials. I have promised not to assist ICE. This paradigm shift will increase public safety.
For example, domestic abusers regularly exploit their victim’s immigration status to stop the victims from reporting abuse, thereby trapping their victims in a recurring cycle of domestic violence. Allowing these victims to report their abuser without having to fear their own deportation gives them a real opportunity to escape continued victimization.
Regardless of the crime committed, when undocumented individuals feel that they can report crime to the police, our communities are safer. Instead of sowing distrust between immigrants and law enforcement, public safety demands that we ensure everyone feels protected.
Charging and plea guidelines in a DA’s office can also affect undocumented communities. Considering the immigration consequences of charging and plea decisions is critical to ensuring equality and opportunity. If two people commit the same minor offense, but only one’s punishment includes the breaking up of their family via deportation, the result is unequal treatment based on status.
Furthermore, deporting parents and removing them from their children for minor offenses serves no social good. It merely creates more hardship and exacerbates inequality.
For too long, the criminal justice system has been skilled at breaking up families and systemically fostering criminal behavior. This failure has taken the most vulnerable down with it.
As prosecutors, we have the opportunity to build up communities by rooting out the systemic causes of crime. We should be leaders in our communities in bringing equality to immigrants even if we can’t reform immigration policy nationally.
— Steve Descano
Photo via Steve Descano/Facebook
Jonathan Fahey, a former federal prosecutor, has thrown his hat into the race for the commonwealth’s attorney position in Fairfax.
Fahey worked on drug, gang and white-collar crime cases as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia, but resigned last month, the Washington Post reported.
He is listed as an Independent candidate for the spot, according to Fairfax County candidate information.
Fahey served as general counsel for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy last year, according to his LinkedIn. He also was an adjunct professor at American University’s law school and the George Washington University.
Fahey lives in the Falls Church area of Fairfax County near Belvedere Park, according to the Fairfax Bar Association.
Fahey will face off against former U.S. Department of Justice prosecutor Steve Descano, a progressive candidate who ousted Raymond Morrogh in a close race for the Democratic nomination.
The general election is Nov. 5.
Photo via Jonathan Fahey/LinkedIn
The primaries today (June 11) for Tysons-area voters will determine the Democratic nominees for two Virginia Senate seats; the Hunter Mill District, Providence District and chair for the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors; and the Commonwealth’s Attorney.
Here’s a refresher on who the Democratic candidates are for each race:
Board of Supervisors chair:
- Reston developer Timothy Chapman
- Lee District Supervisor Jeffrey McKay
- Georgetown law professor Alicia Plerhoples
- Fairfax County School Board Member At-Large Ryan McElveen
Providence District seat on the county board, which covers Tysons and Merrifield:
- Technology professional Linh Hoang
- former Vienna Town Councilmember Edythe Kelleher
- Fairfax County Planning Commissioner Phillip Niedzielski-Eichner
- Providence District School Board Member Dalia Palchik
- Rotunda Condominium Unit Owners Association board member Erika Yalowitz
Hunter Mill District seat on the county board, which covers Vienna:
- Former Fairfax County Planning Commissioner Walter Alcorn
- Lawyer Laurie Dodd
- U.S. Air Force veteran and community advocate Shyamali Hauth
- Recent Roanoke College graduate Parker Messick
- Comstock Companies executive Maggie Parker
District 31 in the Virginia Senate, which encompasses McLean:
District 35 in the Virginia Senate, which encompasses Falls Church:
- incumbent Dick Saslaw
- lawyer and activist Yasmine Taeb
- attorney and small business owner Karen Torrent