WALLA WALLA -- A Walla Walla store owner was justified when he fatally shot a 22-year-old man who broke into his store in the middle of the night, a special jury said.
The six-member jury seated for the coroner's inquest deliberated for about 90 minutes Friday before announcing it had a verdict, said Walla Walla Coroner Richard Greenwood.
Jurors deliberated about an hour Thursday and said they reached a verdict, but it was a split decision -- 3 to 3 -- and Coroner Dan Blasdel asked them to return today to try to reach a decision.
"I think that was playing it safe for them," said Blasdel, the Franklin County coroner who presided over the inquest at Greenwood's request.
The May 4 shooting of Cesar Chavira has caused unrest in the Walla Walla community, with some people calling for justice for Chavira while others defended New York Store owner John Saul's right to defend his property.
The jury's decision didn't have to be unanimous, but Blasdel said he told them on Friday that it had to be at least 4-2.
Jurors were not polled after the verdict was read to see what the vote was, and only the jury foreman signed the verdict form. On Thursday, Blasdel said he had all the jurors sign the form.
"I think that took some of the feeling away that maybe they could be targeted," he told the Herald. "We actually had some jurors who said they were not going to show up for jury duty. ... They were afraid of retaliation."
Chavira's family was in the room at the Walla Walla police station where the inquest was held when the verdict was read. Greenwood said everyone stayed very orderly.
"It was very respectful and peaceful," he said. "For what they went through, they were very decent about things. I think it's a no-win."
Greenwood said he knew one side would be happy and the other wouldn't, but he also said he didn't expect the decision to change much for Chavira's family because "the family would never get their son back."
The jury's verdict also does not prevent the Walla Walla County prosecutor from filing criminal charges against Saul, so "he's still dealing with everything hanging over his head," Greenwood said.
"In that regards, personally, I don't see what we accomplished," he said. "The only good that we accomplished is the facts were aired in a public forum and the public can make their own opinions now. There were so many rumors swirling around."
Prosecutors typically follow the inquest jury's lead when deciding to file charges, as was the case in the seven inquests called in Benton and Franklin counties since 1992.
But Norma Rodriguez, a Tri-City attorney who represents Chavira's family, said they are hoping Walla Walla Prosecutor Jim Nagle does not follow the jury recommendation. She said they hope Nagle takes into consideration that an inquest jury doesn't get to hear closing arguments and attorneys don't get to submit detailed jury instructions.
Rodriguez said she thinks jurors seated for a trial may reach a different conclusion if they knew "you had to have the imminent danger present at the time, not after the fact."
She said the family is "very saddened" by the verdict, but they still intend to file a civil lawsuit against Saul and the New York Store.
"We're very confident we're going to prevail at that," she said. "If we do, we're hoping that the state will take a second look at (criminal charges)."
During the inquest, which started Wednesday, jurors learned that Chavira was killed after he reportedly broke into Saul's store and stole belts and belt buckles. Saul, who sleeps in his store at night, told investigators that Chavira threatened him and he defended himself.
Jurors heard testimony that Chavira had been shot in the back while in the middle of the street. The first shotgun blast hit him when he was about 114 feet from the front of Saul's store, investigators said.
Saul fired five times from his 12-gauge shotgun before calling 911. Saul likely was standing just inside the doorway and fired through the broken glass on one of the doors, a detective said.
Greenwood said his first inquest ran smoothly and when preparing for it, they took several leads on what not to do from Lewis County.
Last year, Lewis County's coroner called an inquest in a 1998 death that had been ruled a suicide. The inquest jury decided the death was a homicide. The coroner issued an arrest warrant and had the suspect arrested. Prosecutors, however, said they weren't prosecuting the case and the suspect had to be released.
Greenwood said they decided early on that since the coroner has no prosecutorial powers, they were not going to initiate any arrest, regardless of the verdict. He also said state coroners plan to meet this fall to review some of the state laws relating to coroner's inquests, partly because of what happened in Lewis County.
"The rules for inquests go back to the mid- or late-1800s," he said. "They're antiquated."
Blasdel said the only thing he would do different is to hold the inquest in an actual courtroom. In the Tri-Cities, the coroner's inquests have been done in court, but no courtrooms were available in Walla Walla so they had to arrange for a conference room at the police station.