Gov. Jay Inslee asked the state Attorney General’s Office on Wednesday to review the decision by the Franklin County prosecutor not to charge three police officers with the shooting death of a rock-throwing man in February.
“I want to ensure that people have confidence and trust in the decision that is made in this case,” Inslee said in a letter to Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
Ferguson responded that his office didn’t have the “original criminal jurisdiction” in the case until the governor or the county prosecutor requested a review.
“We will begin our review immediately. That being said, it is too soon to anticipate how long this review might take,” Ferguson wrote. “I am committed to conducting a full and fair review of this matter.”
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Prosecutor Shawn Sant announced his decision about the Feb. 10 death of Antonio Zambrano-Montes, 35, of Pasco, at an oft-contentious news conference Wednesday afternoon.
If police officers who use deadly force when confronting an armed suspect are “acting in good faith and without malice,” Sant said, the law states they shall not be prosecuted for any crime.
In this case, the nearly 5-pound rock that Zambrano-Montes threw at Officer Adrian Alaniz and other softball- and cantaloupe-sized rocks and pieces of concrete qualify as deadly weapons, Sant said.
“It was a rock!” someone shouted in the packed county commissioner’s meeting room.
People questioned how rocks justify a fatal shooting, with one person shouting, “Pasco is a good place to commit suicide by cop.”
The crowd included Zambrano-Montes’ relatives and members of Tri-Cities Community Solutions, along with a Pasco city councilman and two Franklin County commissioners. Multiple sheriff’s officials, including Sheriff Jim Raymond, provided security.
When the group chanted “No es justo,” or “It’s not fair,” a deputy told them to be quiet. “Or you’ll shoot us,” someone replied.
Sant explained that deadly force can be used by both private citizens and police officers “in very specific circumstances without it rising to the level of a criminal act,” but that there are different standards for the two.
“Washington state law treats police officers differently with good reason. Unlike the rest of us, law enforcement officers do not have the option of walking away to dial 911. They are 911,” Sant said. “In Washington, an officer’s use of deadly force is justifiable ... when the officer has probable cause to believe that the person poses a threat of serious physical harm to another.”
Alaniz and fellow officers Ryan Flanagan and Adam Wright “were trying to apprehend Zambrano after he had assaulted officers and while he was attempting to assault them again,” Sant said. “... They repeatedly warned him to put down the rocks or they would shoot.”
The prosecutor said if he took the case before a 12-person jury for murder or any other charge, the panel would unanimously agree it could not find “the presence of malice and the absence of good faith beyond a reasonable doubt in this case.”
Sant said therefore he legally cannot charge Alaniz, Flanagan and Wright with a crime “for exercising their discretion to use deadly force.”
George P. Trejo Jr., the attorney for the wife and children of Zambrano-Montes, said they are extremely disappointed with Sant’s decision.
“His claim that there is insufficient evidence to establish any crime beyond a reasonable doubt is a pretext for his decision to protect law enforcement from the very beginning of this case,” Trejo said. “We are not surprised by this decision but disgusted and disappointed.”
The shooting was investigated by a team of local police, called the Tri-City Special Investigations Unit, led by Kennewick police Commander Craig Littrell. The decision to have local law enforcement investigate the shooting has drawn criticism.
Wednesday’s announcement comes seven months after Zambrano-Montes — an orchard worker who was left homeless after a fire burned his house — was killed during the confrontation with police at the intersection of 10th Avenue and Lewis Street.
The officers told investigators they feared for their safety as Zambrano-Montes was throwing the large rocks.
They first used Tasers to subdue Zambrano-Montes and then fired on the Mexican national in the crowded intersection. The officers fired two volleys of shots. Zambrano-Montes had at least seven gunshot wounds.
Toxicology tests showed Zambrano-Montes was under the influence of methamphetamine during the confrontation. Witnesses reported he told police to shoot and kill him.
The shooting was captured on cellphone video, prompting months of protests in Pasco and outrage from as far away as Mexico.
The officers were placed on paid administrative leave after the shooting.
Flanagan has since resigned. Alaniz and Wright remain on the force, and Police Chief Bob Metzger said their status will be determined by an internal investigation.
The city of Pasco and the Pasco Police Department, in a joint statement, said they welcome Inslee’s announcement for review of the case by Ferguson “as it will further increase confidence in the process.”
“We are all committed to building a safer, more inclusive and stronger community,’ the statement said.
The police department is doing its own internal investigation into the actions of Alaniz, Flanagan and Wright. That process should conclude shortly since investigators were waiting for charging decisions by Sant before finalizing the inquiry, the news release said.
“As a department, we remain committed to providing a safe environment and reducing the fear of crime while affording dignity and respect to every individual,” Metzger said in the written statement. “While the prosecutor’s decision has been made, we will continue our work with community leaders, residents and local mental health care providers to ensure a safe city that values all our residents.”
Metzger was asked at the news conference if he thought the 17 gunshots — some fired through the busy intersection and into a nearby gas station — were necessary and if the officers followed their training.
“That’s what we’re looking into,” the chief said.
Sant also considered reckless endangerment in reviewing the law, but the officers’ actions also did not qualify for that charge. He said that issue “will probably be looked at on the civil side,” referencing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit by the Zambrano-Montes family.
The U.S. Department of Justice stepped in to help train the Pasco Police Department because of the scrutiny for the officers’ decision to kill Zambrano-Montes.
U.S. Attorney Michael C. Ormsby said Wednesday his office, the FBI and the Civil Rights Division will continue their independent review of the case to determine if there’s a prosecutable violation of federal law.
Franklin County Coroner Dan Blasdel has said he plans to hold an independent inquest into the death, but has had trouble finding a venue. An inquest allows a civilian jury to determine the cause and manner of death in the case, and make a recommendation on whether the shooting was justified.
Sant on Wednesday reiterated that he does not see the purpose of an inquest because they have long known who caused Zambrano-Montes’ death. The statements from 51 witnesses are consistent with the officers’ accounts and corroborated by the videos, he said.