The long-awaited coroner’s inquest into the shooting death of Antonio Zambrano-Montes, 35, by Pasco police is on hold again.
The Tri-City attorney who was to present evidence at an inquest has backed out, citing legal conflicts.
The unidentified attorney notified Franklin County Coroner Dan Blasdel of his decision Monday evening. Blasdel said that means the inquest planned this fall at Columbia Basin College is on indefinite hold until he can find a replacement.
Zambrano-Montes was shot and killed in Feburary 2015 by three Pasco police officers after throwing rocks. He was high on methamphetamine at the time.
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State and federal prosecutors have declined to charge the three officers, but Blasdel has continued to push for the independent inquest into the death.
“The public’s behind me. People stop me every day and tell me I’m doing the right thing,” he said.
The latest delay was quickly condemned by Latino leaders.
“This inquest should have happened a long time ago. We’ve seen a lot of obstruction,” said Leo Perales, a member of the Tri-City-based Latino Coalition. “It just elevates the lack of faith in the system in Franklin County.”
Blasdel has faced numerous roadblocks along the way but said he remains committed to a public inquest.
This inquest should have happened a long time ago. We’ve seen a lot of obstruction. It just elevates the lack of faith in the system in Franklin County.
Leo Perales, Latino Coalition
“It’s a means to uncover the facts of the death for the general public,” he said, noting it’s important no circumstances are “overlooked, sealed or ignored.”
In an inquest, evidence is presented to a jury. The jury’s conclusions are not binding on prosecutors, but the public nature of the quasi-judicial proceeding helps shed light on the circumstances leading to the fateful confrontation.
Blasdel had planned this week to ask the Franklin County Commission to authorize $27,500 for attorney fees.
But he said the attorney withdrew over a little-known law that prohibits coroners from appearing in court unless they are defending themselves or their employees. The private attorney would have been deputized for the inquest, putting him technically afoul of the law.
Blasdel said the Washington State Bar Association said the lawyer could be reprimanded for the violation.
Blasdel said he was also informed by Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant that the attorney would also have to stop practicing law while he prepared for and conducted the inquest.
The public’s behind me. People stop me every day and tell me I’m doing the right thing.
Dan Blasdel, Franklin County coroner
Perales called on Sant to remove himself from the inquest conversation.
“There should be no interruptions and no elected officials involved,” he argued. “He is getting in the way of Dan Blasdel doing his job.”
Washington law allows elected officials such as Blasdel to schedule inquests to identify the circumstances around deaths with an eye toward shedding light on the events. Blasdel, who isn’t up for re-election for two years, said he remains committed to carrying out his duties.
The inquest was previously delayed over issues related to using a Franklin County courtroom and when the Columbia County prosecutor withdrew after offering to conduct the inquest for free. The Washington Legislature passed a law requiring counties to make courtrooms available for inquests.
Blasdel said he will press ahead.
“My options: I find somebody who is not an attorney to go through the evidence and present questions to the witnesses, or I find a retired attorney to do it.”