After clearing three major hurdles this week, Franklin County Coroner Dan Blasdel plans to hold a public inquest in April or May into last year’s shooting death of Antonio Zambrano-Montes.
Blasdel began his yearlong campaign last February for an inquest into the high-profile death of the homeless man, but was blocked by access to county funding and courtrooms. This week, the financial and location issues were solved in part because of intense advocacy by the Latino Civic Alliance.
Columbia County Prosecutor Rea Caldwell also has volunteered to serve as special prosecutor. That will save Franklin County the $60,000 to $80,000 it would cost to hire an outside prosecutor to present evidence to the special jury.
This week, the state Legislature passed a bill requiring counties to make Superior Court facilities available for inquests, another previous sticking point.
Franklin County commissioners on Wednesday then reversed themselves on paying for the proceeding, when they unanimously agreed to support it after Blasdel formally requested funds.
“I’m very pleased,” Blasdel said Wednesday morning, after the commission’s meeting. “They got backed into a corner and finally they didn’t have any choice.”
The Latino Civic Alliance, a statewide Latino advocacy group that pushed state and local officials for an inquest and for more discussion around police relations, applauded the move.
Board member Gabriel Portugal, of Pasco, said a public review of the events of Feb. 10, 2015, has been lacking.
“The Latino community is going through a healing process,” he said.
Zambrano-Montes, 35, died after he was shot at 17 times by three Pasco police officers. High on methamphetamine at the time, he threw rocks at police and passing cars. Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant declined to prosecute the officers and has spoken against the inquest.
Zambrano-Montes’ family members have filed two multimillion-dollar lawsuits against the city of Pasco.
Blasdel said Wednesday that he pressed for an inquest for more than a year because he still receives a stream of calls, texts and emails from citizens.
“The community wants this inquest. They want to see that the investigation was done in a proper manner,” he said.
He plans to schedule the inquest as soon as Caldwell is available and when he secures either a Franklin County courtroom or TRAC in Pasco.
Blasdel said he would prefer a courtroom, but he was stymied in September when the six Superior Court judges declined to allow the inquest at the courthouse, calling it a non-judicial matter that “falls outside of our core mandate.”
And while previous coroner inquests have been at the courthouse, the judges wrote in a Sept. 10 letter that the inquest would pose trouble for security, scheduling and other issues.
Blasdel brushed off security concerns, noting the Franklin County Courthouse has metal detectors and other screening devices.
“There’s been high-profile cases in the county before,” he said. “It’s a moot point.”
The September letter by Superior Court judges inspired Washington lawmakers to pass Senate Bill 6295, requiring counties to hold inquests in their Superior Court facilities and provide other support.
But that won’t become law until three months after it’s signed by the governor. That’s too late to compel Franklin County to make its courthouse available this spring, so Blasdel asked the judges in a letter Monday to reconsider their position.
“The Superior Court judges will see the writing on the wall,” he predicted during an impromptu news conference on the courthouse steps.
A courthouse inquest would cost about $21,000, including staffing and other costs. Renting space at TRAC would push that to $33,000, according to requests Blasdel submitted to the county commission this week.
The county commission’s vote to pay for the inquest was another victory for inquest supporters.
In signing off, Franklin County’s elected leaders acknowledged the elected coroner has the legal authority to call an inquest. They called his proposed budget reasonable and said the proceedings will be paid from the county’s contingency fund.
It was a big reversal. The commission previously said an inquest was the wrong venue to review the case.
In a Jan. 29 letter signed by all three commissioners, it told Blasdel it wouldn’t fund an inquest because it wasn’t included it in his 2016 budget. It further said Blasdel could be personally liable if he proceeded.
Blasdel called the threat a “bullying tactic.”
During the inquest, a panel of six jurors and one alternate will hear testimony from sworn witnesses.
They will decide the cause of death and if anyone is criminally responsible. The panel can make recommendations to the prosecutor, who does not have to follow them. It can also make recommendations to prevent similar deaths in the future.
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