Seven unanswered questions in the Fairfax police shooting death of John Geer
By Tom Jackman
The Washington Post
After Fairfax County on Monday decided to release the name of the officer involved in the fatal shooting of John Geer in 2013, and make the new allegation that Geer had threatened police with a gun, there remain a number of crucial unanswered questions in the case. Here are our top seven. You can add yours in the comments:
1) Why did Officer Adam Torres fire one shot at close range and kill John Geer?
After 16 months of silence, the Fairfax police identified a 31-year-old eight-year veteran from the West Springfield patrol station as the shooter, but would not say why he fired. Did Torres think that Geer, after between 30 and 50 minutes of discussion, was reaching for a gun when he began to lower his hands from the top of the storm door? Witnesses say Geer’s hands had only reached eye level when Torres fired. When officers feel threatened, they are trained to fire more than one time. Other officers were also on scene, with weapons aimed at Geer, but they did not fire. Was the shot intentional, or an accident? Did Geer say something that caused Torres to feel threatened?
2) When will a decision be made about whether to charge Torres with a crime?
The case is now in the hands of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, which is not known for prompt decisions (see the Oscar Grant case in Oakland from 2009, or the Trayvon Martin case from 2012). The investigation, initially conducted by the Fairfax police homicide section and reviewed by Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh, was shifted to the U.S. attorney in Alexandria in January 2014 after Morrogh ran into roadblocks obtaining internal affairs information from the Fairfax police, Morrogh has said. The FBI and Justice Department lawyers then investigated, subpoenaed the same internal affairs information Morrogh sought, then passed the case to Main Justice in November for a ruling.
The difference between the Geer case and Grant, Martin, Michael Brown and others is that local prosecutors and juries made decisions on those cases before the feds got involved. This time, the feds are the first ones to make a call. And if they decide there was no civil rights violation — defined as a government entity willfully denying a citizen their rights — does the case then return to Fairfax prosecutor Morrogh for a decision on whether state law was violated? How long would all this take?
3) What internal affairs files were the Fairfax and federal prosecutors seeking in this case?
This has apparently been a major sticking point for investigators, and several officials familiar with the case said that both Morrogh and the federal prosecutors were seeking information not on the shooter, Torres, but on one of the police witnesses. The issue reportedly is whether the witness has had prior problems with truthfulness. Fairfax prosecutors are careful not to use witnesses whose truthfulness has been challenged in court, because it allows defense attorneys to attack their testimony. Did a police witness in the Geer case offer corroborating testimony for Torres, or conflicting? This is also complicated by the legal precedent that statements given by officers in internal investigations, mandatorily, cannot be used against them in criminal cases, where they are not required to testify. Morrogh reportedly was not seeking to prosecute anyone based on the prior cases, but Fairfax County attorneys still resisted.
4) How will Fairfax County proceed in the civil lawsuit filed by Geer’s family?
Frustrated after a year of silence, Geer’s family sued Fairfax police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. and the county in September, seeking answers. Fairfax resisted providing any pre-trial discovery, saying the case was still under federal investigation. Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Randy I. Bellows last month ordered Fairfax to turn over everything that was obtained before the case went to the feds in January 2014 and gave them 30 days to do so. After two weeks, Fairfax has not yet done so. In the last police shooting to go to civil court, the 2006 killing of unarmed optometrist Salvatore Culosi, Fairfax County fought Culosi’s lawyers for four years in federal court before finally agreeing to pay a $2 million settlement on the eve of trial. Will Fairfax again take a hardball approach to the family of a man shot dead by one of their officers?
5) When will Fairfax County provide a detailed timeline of what happened that day?
After 16 months, the Fairfax police for the first time revealed not only Torres’s name, but a new claim that Geer was “displaying a firearm that he threatened to use against the police.” The police also stated that “a trained negotiator” was involved and tried to get Geer to emerge from his townhouse, though Geer was not holding any hostages and was not known to be suspected of any crimes. Geer’s father said he was told by police that Geer was unarmed, and he does not appear armed in a photo taken shortly before the shooting, though a holstered, loaded handgun was found a few feet from the doorway. The Geer family’s lawyer, Michael Lieberman, said he had never heard any report about Geer displaying a gun or that a negotiator was involved. What other details do Fairfax authorities have about the case, including their decision to wait an hour before rendering aid to the mortally wounded Geer?
6) If the case languishes at the federal level, will Sen. Charles Grassley get involved again?
Grassley (R-Iowa) is now the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. As the case sat quietly within the Justice Department, he fired off letters to the Fairfax police chief, the U.S. attorney and the Fairfax prosecutor, asking what was causing the delay. The responses to his questions made it clear that no one was silencing the Fairfax police, clearing the way for Judge Bellows to order them to release information to the family in the civil case. Will he seek more information if the case goes quiet again?
7) Why have Fairfax police not previously stated that Geer was “displaying a firearm that he threatened to use against the police”?
When Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson’s full explanation of why he shot Michael Brown was made publicly available, it provided a previously missing component to the discussion of why Brown was killed. Wilson’s version of events came less than four months after the shooting, but well after the civil unrest it caused. In Fairfax, there has been no civil unrest, and, until Monday, very little information.