A Yakima attorney representing the widow of Antonio Zambrano-Montes sent a letter to Franklin County prosecutors calling for the three Pasco officers involved in the deadly shooting last month to be charged with murder.
“We believe you should exercise your discretion and simply charge the officers who executed Mr. Zambrano with at a minimum second-degree murder, and permit a jury of their peers to decide their fate,” said attorney George Paul Trejo Jr. in the letter.
A copy of the March 15 two-page letter was sent to the Herald on Monday.
Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant has not received reports from the Tri-City Special Investigations Unit, a team of area police investigating the Feb 10 shooting, he said. The prosecutor needs to review the reports before he can decide whether criminal charges should be filed.
“I have insufficient information to charge anybody with any crimes at this point,” Sant said.
Zambrano-Montes, 35, was shot at by Pasco police officers Ryan Flanagan, Adam Wright and Adrian Alaniz after he reportedly threw at least one rock at them. The orchard worker was not carrying a gun or knife. A rock was found near his body.
Trejo and his team recently were rehired by Teresa De Jesus Meraz Ruiz, the widow of Zambrano-Montes. She dropped Trejo after he filed a $25 million claim with the city of Pasco shortly after the shooting.
Charles Herrmann — a Seattle-area lawyer hired after Trejo was let go — was notified last week that Ruiz no longer wanted him to represent her.
In the letter Trejo sent to Sant, the lawyer outlines his opinion that an inquest called by Franklin County Coroner Dan Blasdel is unnecessary and should be considered special treatment for the three officers. Trejo wrote that Blasdel has “exceeded the scope of his authority” by holding an inquest.
Trejo also asked Sant in the letter if he could be a part of the inquest and question witnesses.
Sant plans to respect the inquest process and not make any charging decisions until it’s complete, he said. He respects Blasdel’s right to hold an inquest and will prepare to present facts at it once he reviews the SIU reports.
Sant said he will not allow Trejo or other lawyers to participate in the inquest.
“I think it would create bad precedent for what the purpose of an inquest is,” Sant said.
Blasdel decided to hold an inquest because he wants facts about the case to be open to the public, he said.
The inquest will allow a jury of six civilians to determine the cause and manner of death in the shooting. The jury also will decide if the shooting was justifiable.
Sant will present facts to jurors and witnesses will be called to testify. Blasdel will oversee the proceedings, which will take place in a courtroom.
Though the jury will reach a verdict, Sant ultimately will decide whether criminal charges should be filed.
Inquests are uncommon locally. Seven have been held in Benton and Franklin counties since 1990. The cases have involved shootings, a stabbing and the deaths of a newborn and woman who fell down stairs.
In 2006, a jury ruled the death of a newborn put in the trash a homicide. Virginia Ortiz-Espana, 26, was eventually charged with second-degree murder, though the Mesa woman fled to Mexico before the inquest.
In 2008, a jury ruled Jonathan Gannon acted in self-defense when he fatally shot Michael Salazar, 27, inside a Kennewick apartment. Gannon was never charged with the killing.
Blasdel has held two local inquests and consulted on others in the state, including a 2012 shooting in Walla Walla.
“I am confident in due process,” he said. “Especially in bringing the facts of the case to the public so they can see exactly how the case was investigated.”
Also on Monday, Consejo Latino, the Pasco community group that has been outspoken about the shooting, sent a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee requesting a special prosecutor to replace Sant.
The group wrote that Sant is too close to the SIU investigation and that his time spent as a police officer in Prosser and reserve officer in Richland is a conflict of interest.
“Mr. Sant’s ability to make any charging decision is compromised by his apparent working relationship with the SIU investigation,” the letter said. “Further, his own past employment as a police officer, coupled with his traditional prosecutorial role as police defender in court, could be seen as adversely impacting on his ability to make an objective and impartial decision on whether charges should be filed.”
Sant told the Herald he does not see a conflict of interest in the case and his office will review it impartially, like the three other recent shootings involving police officers in Franklin County. The prosecutor said he was elected to make tough decisions and has no plans to step aside.