The inquest into the fatal Pasco police shooting of a Mexican man throwing rocks while fleeing faces another setback.
Special Deputy Coroner Rea Culwell, the Columbia County prosecutor, has stepped down from her role of presenting the facts of the shooting of Antonio Zambrano-Montes at the fact-finding coroner’s inquest, said Dan Blasdel, Franklin County coroner, at a Thursday press conference in Pasco.
He said Culwell’s decision has to do with her “personal convictions” and called it a setback that pushes the inquest back to late summer.
Blasdel said he’s identified a person at a Tri-City law firm to take her place but is still working out the details. The cost would come out of the budget approved by the county commissioners.
He said the earliest the inquest could start would be late July or August, adding he’d like to schedule it before Columbia Basin College starts the fall quarter on Sept. 19 since it is being held there.
“The Franklin County Coroner’s Office respects Ms. Culwell’s decision,” Blasdel said.
Culwell told the Herald that she had already reviewed the large number of documents covering the investigation of the incident and found the investigation to be “very, very thorough.”
It is important to have the process so this can be put to bed and the community can heal.
Franklin County Coroner Dan Blasdel
“Personally, I would not have held an inquest,” she said.
She initially volunteered to assist Blasdel in the inquest.
Now she has concerns that the questions state law outlines for inquest juries to answer have already been answered by the death certificate. The proposed inquest would go beyond who died, when, where and the cause and manner of death to ask the jury if the shooting was unlawful or criminal in any way, she said.
The death certificate already is clear on matters the state law outlines for an inquest jury to decide, she said, including that Zambrano-Montes died of gunshot wounds.
She respects Blasdel’s decision to hold an inquest, however, she said.
But she also respects the decision of Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant that under the standards set by state law the three officers involved acted in good faith and without malice. Sant did a thorough review and, as a prosecutor, she understands his decision, she said.
A civil lawsuit filed by Zambrano-Montes’ survivors could answer some of the other questions the public may have, she said.
The state Attorney General also has yet to release results of a review it announced in September, although Culwell said she did not anticipate the review would find that further investigation is needed.
Antonio Zambrano-Montes, 35, was shot at 17 times by three Pasco officers in 2015 while he was high on methamphetamine and throwing rocks at police and passing cars.
Blasdel said he would have liked to have had the inquest six to eight months ago. But it is not too late, he said, citing a Lewis County inquest conducted a decade after a death occurred.
The inquest would “give the public their day in court,” he said. The public would have a chance to see witnesses testify and hear what they have to say.
“It is important to have the process so this can be put to bed and the community can heal,” he said. It also is the right of a coroner to hold an inquest.
The Latino Coalition of Tri-Cities said Culwell’s decision was yet another impediment to the planned public inquest.
“This news is troubling and adds yet another blow to a 16-month struggle for justice on behalf of a member of the Latino community,” the coalition said in a statement.
Public review is part of the necessary checks and balances to guarantee that the community and its police officers agree on practices that address public safety concerns, the coalition said.
The Pasco Police Department has made minor improvements since Zambrano-Montes was killed, but those efforts are undermined by not yet having a public inquest, the coalition said.
“The Latino community wants this public inquest, as does the whole Pasco community,” it said. “It will be ... a big step to rebuilding public trust.”
Zambrano-Montes, 35, was shot at 17 times by three Pasco officers in 2015 while he was high on methamphetamine and throwing rocks at police and passing cars. The case prompted months of protests in Pasco and outrage from as far away as Mexico.