Inquest set on fatal police shooting of Mexican farmworker after year of coroner's persistence

More than a year after an unarmed Mexican fieldworker was shot by a trio of police officers in a small agricultural town -- a killing captured in graphic cellphone video -- and seven months after a prosecutor declined to charge any of them, there will be a public inquest into the long-questioned death of Antonio Zambrano-Montes.

Fans of open government can thank Dan Blasdel for that. While other top officials in Pasco banded together to stop him, the elected county coroner since 1994 took a hard stance, called his opponents bullies, and repeatedly waved the law in their faces.

His persistence paid off. Blasdel told The Times that the inquest he hoped to conduct a year ago will finally take place in early June at Pasco’s Columbia Basin College, a venue that can accommodate the crowd of public and media members he expects to attend.

“The community is split on this case,” Blasdel said of Pasco and nearby Richland and Kennewick, which make up the Tri-Cities area in eastern Washington bordering the Columbia River and the Hanford nuclear reservation. “Many feel that it was a bad shoot. Many think with all the pushback I received that there is something to hide and everyone is trying to sweep this shooting under the rug.”

While state law allows coroners to hold an inquest at county expense, the three-member Franklin County Commission balked, first telling Blasdel he had to submit a budget proposal and later saying he’d be wasting taxpayer money. The cause and manner of Zambrano-Montes’ death had already been determined by police and prosecutors, they said.

County prosecutor Shawn Sant called an inquest unnecessary since he had already cleared the officers, and he refused to participate, putting Blasdel in the position of having to hire a special prosecutor at an added cost of up to $80,000.

A group of Superior Court judges also warned Blasdel that due to their heavy caseload, he wouldn’t be able to use any of their courtrooms, likely requiring him to rent space elsewhere. Some officials said if Blasdel proceeded, he might be held personally responsible for costs.

“If I would have caved,” said Blasdel, “that would have set a precedent all over the state for coroners calling inquests.” So he pushed on, setting inquest dates, then calling them off when the commission delayed funding approval.

But with public pressure building, commissioners did an about-face this month, agreeing to pay for the inquest, and Blasdel said he could save the $80,000 cost of hiring an outside prosecutor after Columbia County prosecutor Rea Culwell volunteered to handle the inquest.

Though rare in some states, public inquests are fact-finding hearings at which jurors decide whether a killing was justified. The jury’s vote is weighed by the county prosecutor in deciding whether criminal charges should be filed -- although in this case that decision has already been made. What effect the June inquest will have is unclear.

As it is, inquests tend to favor police and rarely lead to indictments in Washington because of a nearly insurmountable law that requires prosecutors to prove an officer-involved killing was done with “evil intent” and lacked “good faith.”

King County prosecutor Dan Satterberg in Seattle called the law an “almost perfect defense to a mistaken use of force.”

The video of the Feb. 10, 2015, point-blank shooting in Pasco captures the final seconds of a daylight foot chase along a busy street after Zambrano-Montes -- later found to be high on methamphetamine -- had thrown rocks at the officers.

In a cellphone video taken by a witness from a stopped car, a fleeing Zambrano-Montes can be seen running, possibly limping, as he crosses the street with officers in close pursuit.

It is unclear whether he has already been wounded -- one of several autopsies indicated he was struck by at least one slug when the chase began -- as he trots along the sidewalk. At one point he appears to raise his hands and then extends them out as he twists around and looks back, with his hands away from his body.

In the final frames, he halts and turns, hands in front. He briefly touches both hands to his shirt, then extends them. An enlarged photo from that point in the video shows Zambrano-Montes with arms outstretched. The three officers fire a dozen shots.

Police said “five or six rounds” struck Zambrano-Montes, but officials were left uncertain due to conflicting autopsy results. The official autopsy came up with five rounds, none in the back. But two separate autopsies, authorized by Zambrano-Montes’ widow and parents (who have filed wrongful-death lawsuits against the county), found another wound to the back.

Toño, as Zambrano-Montes was known to friends, was one of 16 children. He migrated illegally from Mexico around 2006 to work at Columbia Basin farms and orchards, picking vegetables and fruit. He injured his hands in a fall just before the shooting, and was unable to work or send money home, his family said. He was separated from his wife and depressed after his house caught fire a few weeks earlier. It is not known why he threw rocks at police.

Prosecutor Sant said in September that he couldn’t prove the officers -- Adrian Alaniz, Ryan Flanagan and Adam Wright -- didn’t act “in good faith and without malice,” the legal barrier he had to clear. Latino crowds had peacefully marched in repeated protests over the shooting. But Sant said it was best for Pasco to move toward closure.

“It is my sincere hope that, whether we can see these events from one perspective or many, as a community we can come together and begin the healing process.”

Blasdel sees it differently: “This gives the people their day in court.”

Anderson is a special correspondent based in Seattle. 

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