On Monday, former Fairfax County VA Police Officer Adam Torres shocked the public by pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter in the 2013 shooting of John Geer. If the plea is accepted, the Washington Post reports, he will become just one of eighteen American police officers convicted in the past eleven years of a felony for fatal police killings while on the job. But real questions remain as to whether the plea deal, which brings with it a one-year jail sentence, goes far enough.
Indeed, the judge refused to approve the sentence and will rule after June hearing whether to accept the plea. It is undisputed that Torres shot the unarmed Geer, expressed no remorse at the time, and admitted that he had shot Geer intentionally. “It’s not accidental,” Torres told a police interviewer, adding later that, “No, it was justified. I have no doubt at all. I don’t feel sorry for shooting the guy at all.”
Three other police officers present at the scene, including Rodney Barnes, a trained police negotiator, disagreed with Torres’s claim that Geer brought his hands down to his waist and that Torres shot in self-defense. The other police officers, along with Geer’s best friend, who watched the killing, saw it differently. Barnes told the police investigators that when Torres fired his weapon “his [Geer’s] hands were up,” as did the other police officers who witnessed the slaying.
The Torres plea agreement raises some interesting legal questions. The grand jury indictment explicitly rejected the charge of involuntary manslaughter, indicting Torres for second degree murder. In Virginia, manslaughter is a common-law felony which case-law holds occurs when someone unintentionally kills another. Involuntary manslaughter seems inappropriate to some observers in the Geer killing since Torres told police investigators that he meant to shoot Geer and believed the killing was justified. It is difficult in light of Torres’s statements to view the use of deadly force as unintentional. Second-degree murder, in contrast, carries with it a maximum sentence of forty years and is presumed in all homicide cases which do not qualify for first degree murder status, i.e. premeditated killing.
While securing a felony conviction against a police officer who clearly did not appear to act reasonably and justifiably, is progress, LawCash questions whether a year in jail suffices as punishment and deterrence for unjustified, intentional taking of a life. The country will be watching in June to hear the judge’s take on the issue.