Franklin county coroner's inquest finds Pasco officers justified in 2015 shooting
A coroner’s inquest should be held for all officer-involved shootings, said a retired King County judge who oversaw an inquest in Pasco last month into the police shooting death of Antonio Zambrano-Montes.
Michael J. Fox and others, including Franklin County Coroner Dan Blasdel, testified Wednesday at a work session by the state Senate Law and Justice Committee to learn more about coroners’ investigations of police use of deadly force.
Although the findings of coroners’ juries are not binding on courts or prosecutors, they can be useful in determining the facts, the committee chairman, Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, said before the hearing.
“In Pasco, we saw an example of how such inquests ought to be conducted,” Padden said. “The inquest helped to defuse community tensions in a racially charged case, and its just-the-facts approach could serve as a model for other communities facing similar situations.”
Zambrano-Montes, 35, a Mexican immigrant, was fired on 17 times in February 2015 as he ran through the intersection of 10th Avenue and Lewis Street in Pasco. He was high on methamphetamine at the time, and was throwing large rocks at passing cars and police officers.
Within days of Zambrano-Montes’ death, Blasdel announced plans for an inquest. He faced multiple obstacles, and the inquest was not held until almost two years later.
In Pasco we saw an example of how such inquests ought to be conducted. The inquest helped to defuse community tensions in a racially charged case, and its just-the-facts approach could serve as a model for other communities facing similar situations.
Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley
County commissioners said an inquest was not needed and initially declined to spend county money on it, Blasdel told the Senate panel. Then, six Benton-Franklin Superior Court judges sent him a letter saying that a courtroom would not be available.
Blasdel also had trouble finding an attorney willing to oversee the inquest.
Blasdel has been coroner for 22 years but had no officer-involved shooting deaths until the six months before the Zambrano-Montes incident, he said. In those six months, there were four officer-involved shootings, he said.
None of the earlier shootings were controversial enough to warrant an inquest, Blasdel said.
At times he was ready to give up his efforts as the months dragged on with the setbacks, he said. But then a local unnamed businessman told the coroner that he thought the inquest was so important that he offered to put up as much as $100,000 of his own money to make it happen, Blasdel recounted.
Blasdel told the committee that he has been approached frequently by people who believed the inquest was the right thing to do.
An inquest allows the public to see how the investigation was conducted and see if a shooting was fair, he said.
“The public, in general, right now they do not totally trust police like we (did) 20 years ago,” he said.
The public, in general, right now they do not totally trust police like we (did) 20 years ago.
Dan Blasdel, Franklin County coroner
The jury for the Zambrano-Montes inquest found that the three Pasco officers reasonably believed the suspect posed a serious threat if not stopped. The Franklin County prosecutor, the state Attorney General’s Office and federal investigators previously decided against charging the officers.
Fox told the Senate panel that, historically, coroner inquests have been used to provide a public airing of facts.
Coroner inquests should be done in every officer-involved shooting within 60 days, rather than the almost two years that passed in the Pasco case, he said. Officers also should be interviewed within 14 days rather than the almost two months that elapsed in the Pasco case, he said.
And Fox recommended that cases be presented to an inquest jury by a representative of the state Attorney General’s Office. Local prosecutors should not be asked to present cases because they typically work closely with local officers on cases and the relationship with them in an inquest could be adversarial.
For the same reason, inquests should be funded by the state rather than the county, Fox said.
Nina Martinez, the Latino Civic Alliance chairwoman, said her organization believes the officers involved should have been charged. But the inquest served to humanize the officers, giving the public a chance to understand what they were thinking, and offered insight into Zambrano-Montes’ medical condition, she said.
She was disappointed in the drama Blasdel went through to hold the inquest, she said. A courtroom eventually was offered for his use, but he ended up holding the inquest in a larger space at Columbia Basin College in Pasco.
Last year, the Legislature approved a bill requiring counties to hold inquests in their Superior Court facilities and to provide other support.