The chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has asked Attorney General Loretta Lynch to review the decision not to criminally charge three Pasco police officers who killed a rock-throwing protestor last year.
In a July 8 letter, Martin Castro, chairman of the federal Civil Rights Commission, asked Lynch to revisit the case of Antonio Zambrano-Montes in light of recent conflicts between police and minorities in Baton Route, La., Falcon Heights, Minn. and Dallas, Texas.
Castro said video of the incident appeared to show the Pasco officers “acted willfully” in shooting Zambrano-Montes, a key distinction that speaks to potential criminal intent.
Writing under the federal agency’s seal, Castro addressed the nation’s top legal officer “in my individual capacity as chairman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights.”
Castro signed his name with a private email address, not an official government email address. A Chicago Democrat, Castro was appointed to the commission by President Barak Obama in 2011 and is the first Hispanic leader in half a century. He is also president and CEO of Castro Synergies LLC, a business services firm in River Forest, Ill.
A spokeswoman for the commission could not be reached to comment on the letter or confirm if it reflects what, if any, position the commission has taken on the case.
Zambrano-Montes, 35, a citizen of Mexico and migrant farm worker, was killed in Pasco in February 2015 after he threw rocks at police officers while high on methamphetamine. The officers were investigating a disturbance near Fiesta Foods.
After initially attempting to subdue him with a stun gun, the three officers fired 17 shots at Zambrano-Montes. At least six struck him. Tri-City and federal prosecutors declined to indict the officers, Adrian Alaniz, Ryan Flanagan and Adam Wright.
Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant declined to charge the officers in September, saying officers who use deadly force when confronting an armed suspect are “acting in good faith and without malice.”
Sant challenged Castro’s conclusions in a lengthy response Monday. The prosecutor said some of his assertions were “not based on the evidence.”
“I agree with you that uses of force by law enforcement officials must be strictly scrutinized,” he wrote.
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson is reviewing the decision not to prosecute the officers in state court at the request of Gov. Jay Inslee.
The U.S. Department of Justice also declined to file federal criminal charges.
In a decision announced June 21, Michael C. Ormsby, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern Washington, said there was insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officers acted with criminal intent, the legal standard necessary to win a conviction.
But Castro disagreed.
He wrote that “disturbing” video of the shooting posted on YouTube appeared to show Zambrano-Montes surrendering to police when he was shot.
“The officers appear to have acted willfully in shooting Mr. Zambrano-Montes, rather than subduing him in a nonlethal manner. As such, they appear to have willfully deprived him of his life, the most important constitutional right of all,” Castro wrote.
A spokesman for the Justice Department said the agency thoroughly reviewed the case and consulted with numerous sources, including the FBI and its own civil rights division, before reaching the decision not to charge.
The officers appear to have acted willfully in shooting Mr. Zambrano-Montes, rather than subduing him in a non-lethal manner. As such, they appear to have willfully deprived him of his life, the most important constitutional right of all.
Martin Castro, chairman, U.S. Civil Rights Commission
The Latino Coalition welcomed Castro’s move as a step toward greater dialogue and a public reconciliation of the events that led to the shooting.
“Maybe Mr. Castro’s letter will give the Department of Justice pause for consideration,” said Felix Vargas, one of the group’s leaders.
Charles Herrmann, a Seattle wrongful death attorney representing Zambrano-Montes’ mother, father and personal estate in a federal civil case against the officers and the city of Pasco, also welcomed the call for a review.
“The Department of Justice through our local federal authorities needs to dig into what is really going on down there. There’s a larger issue. It’s beyond the scope of my civil case,” he said.
The family’s consolidated civil suit is scheduled for a trial before a jury in May at the federal courthouse in Richland.