A former Pasco police officer involved in the fatal shooting of a Mexican immigrant in February 2015 is asking a judge to remove the Franklin County coroner from the inquest into the man’s death.
Ryan Flanagan’s attorney, Scott Johnson of Kennewick, filed the request Monday in Franklin County Superior Court.
The motion cites comments made by Coroner Dan Blasdel as being indicative of his bias in the inquest into the death of Antonio Zambrano-Montes and that undermines confidence in the justice system.
“From almost the moment the incident happened ... Blasdel expanded his limited role as a coroner, turning himself into a ringmaster of a self-made circus,” Johnson wrote in court documents.
Johnson is asking a judge to take over the coroner’s inquest scheduled to begin May 23 in donated space at Columbia Basin College in Pasco.
Read more Click here for full coverage of the Pasco police-involved shooting
Because Blasdel is acting in a quasi-judicial manner and wants to determine responsibility for what happened, he’s required to appear fair to protect against bias, Johnson argued in court documents.
“Based on the comments cited in this motion, Coroner Blasdel has at best demonstrated that it appears he will not conduct the inquest fairly and at worst he has demonstrated that he will actually not conduct the inquest fairly,” court documents said.
Blasdel said he’s is waiting for guidance from the county prosecutor’s office before formally responding to Johnson’s motion but told the Herald the document is “ridiculous” and that he “doesn’t have a horse in the race.”
“I just make sure its done in a fair and unbiased manner,” he said, noting a Columbia County prosecutor, not himself, is presenting the case at the inquest.
Zambrano-Montes, 35, died after the officers shot at him 17 times. High on methamphetamine at the time, he threw rocks at police and passing cars.
Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant declined to prosecute the officers involved. Flanagan resigned from the police department in July 2015. The two other officers, Adam Wright and Adrian Alaniz, have returned to duty.
From almost the moment the incident happened ... Blasdel expanded his limited role as a coroner turning himself into a ringmaster of a self-made circus.
Scott Johnson, attorney
Sant has spoken against the inquest, and has said repeatedly he will not participate in it. The Zambrano-Montes family also has said an inquest is not necessary, Sant has said.
But Latino advocates and others have pushed for the independent inquiry. State law gives county coroners the power to call the special inquests, which are rare.
Blasdel has said he has forged ahead, despite criticism from others in law enforcement, the justice system and local government, because citizens have continued to reach out to him about their concerns about the shooting and the investigation.
Benton and Franklin Superior Court judges sent a joint letter to Blasdel in September, telling the coroner he couldn’t use any of the courtrooms for the inquest because it wasn’t a court proceeding. They also criticized Blasdel for public comments he made about handpicking jurors in violation of the U.S. Constitution and state law.
Blasdel says the judges misconstrued comments he made about the jury.
“The comment I made was that I’d like to see half the jurors be of Hispanic origin,” he said. “There’s just a good chance that a number of them be Hispanic (based on Franklin County’s population).”
He said the random selection of the six-person jury will go according to state law.
It’s an information gathering procedure. The jurors’ verdict is advisory only and Mr. Sant has already decided he is not going to charge (the officers).
Franklin County Coroner Dan Blasdel
Johnson cited other examples of Blasdel’s comments about the inquest as reasons to remove him.
Blasdel told the Herald in September there was some community distrust surrounding the investigation into the shooting, given “bad press the Pasco Police Department has had and (Prosecutor) Shawn Sant (previously) being in law enforcement.”
He also cited a February Seattle Times article in which Blasdel said the controversy surrounding Zambrano-Montes’ death justifies an inquest, saying, “We don’t want another Ferguson here in Pasco.”
That was a reference to Ferguson, Mo., where Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in 2014 and a federal investigation eventually found local law enforcement had routinely discriminated against African-Americans.
Blasdel noted any finding from the inquest can only be a recommendation to the prosecutor.
“It’s an information gathering procedure,” Blasdel said. “The jurors’ verdict is advisory only and Mr. Sant has already decided he is not going to charge (the officers).”
No hearing date has been set for Flanagan’s motion.