A motion to remove Franklin County Coroner Dan Blasdel from the inquest he has planned is expected to be dismissed.
The attorney for former officer Ryan Flanagan has filed to voluntarily dismiss his motion that Blasdel be removed from the the inquest into the police shooting death of Antonio Zambrano-Montes. A hearing on the motion had been scheduled for May 27.
The inquest had been scheduled to begin this month but has been delayed.
In the meantime, a new Washington state law addressing coroner inquests is set to take effect June 9. It would remove the authority of coroners to issue warrants, instead requiring that findings from an inquest be forwarded to a prosecutor.
Flanagan’s attorney, Scott Johnson, had asked that Blasdel be removed from the inquest because the coroner would be acting in a quasi-judicial manner and should remain unbiased. Johnson cited comments made by Blasdel that he said indicated bias.
With the coroner soon to no longer have the authority to issue a warrant in the matter, Blasdel would no longer would be acting in a quasi-judicial capacity, Johnson said. That was the basis of the motion.
Blasdel said coroners in the state requested the change in the law. Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, was the prime sponsor of the bill, and Reps. Larry Haler, R-Richland, and Terry Nealey, R-Dayton, also were sponsors.
In a coroner’s inquest, a jury is convened to deliver a verdict on the cause of death. As the law reads now, the coroner is responsible for issuing a warrant for the arrest of a person accused of guilt in the death and delivering it to the sheriff.
These are old statutes created when there were not judges in every county, but circuit judges who were not always available because they traveled from county to county.
Summary of Senate committee testimony
The Washington Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners and the Prosecutors Associations testified in favor of removing the coroner’s warrant authority from state law.
A summary of public comment before the House Judiciary Commission said an old law needed to be changed. Coroners are responsible for determining cause of death and are not judicial officers, the summary said.
In one case a few years ago, a coroner had no choice under the law but to issue an arrest warrant even though the prosecutor had no intention of filing criminal charges because of a lack of admissible evidence, the summary said. The situation resulted in a lawsuit that is ongoing.
The coroner warrants do not have a specific charge listed. But it is a violation of constitutional rights to arrest and hold someone without being charged of a specific crime, said the summary of testimony before the Senate Committee on Law and Justice.
The inquest was never about trying to figure out guilt or not.
Franklin County Coroner Dan Blasdel
The law made more sense when circuit judges traveled from county to county and were not always available to issue a warrant, the Senate committee summary said.
Blasdel said the new law does not change his plan to hold an inquest in the Zambrano-Montes shooting.
“The inquest was never about trying to figure out guilt or not,” he said.
He wants to allow the public to see how the investigation was conducted, since it was a matter of law enforcement investigating law enforcement officers, and the prosecutor’s background in law enforcement, he said.
He has previously called the inquest an information-gathering procedure with the inquest juror’s verdict advisory only.
Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant has declined to prosecute the three officers involved. Two returned to duty after the shooting and Flanagan resigned.
Zambrano-Montes, 35, died after the officers shot at him 17 times. High on methamphetamine at the time, he threw rocks at police and passing cars.