PASCO, Wash. — Three police officers in Washington state who fatally shot a rock-throwing Mexican immigrant in February will not face criminal charges, a prosecutor announced Wednesday, saying there was no evidence the officers acted with malice.
The death of Antonio Zambrano-Montes, 35, was captured on cellphone video and sparked months of protests in Pasco, an agricultural center in eastern Washington. Witnesses said Zambrano-Montes fought with an officer, threw rocks and repeatedly told officers to kill him before they opened fire.
At a news conference repeatedly interrupted by protesters Wednesday, Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant said the evidence showed that the officers used legal force as they tried to arrest a man who had assaulted them and was threatening to attack them further. Sant said he could not meet the high bar for criminal prosecution under Washington state law, which requires a showing that the officers acted with malice and without good faith that their actions were justified.
"The officers used legal force to prevent injuries to themselves and others," the prosecutor said. "Certainly there is no evidence of malice."
The shooting occurred Feb. 10 in a busy intersection, as Zambrano-Montes, high on meth, threw rocks at police. They tried unsuccessfully to subdue him with a stun gun, then, after he threw a rock at an officer's head, Officer Adam Wright shot, striking him in the arm, Sant said. The three officers then chased him across a street.
Video of the shooting showed the officers following Zambrano-Montes, then firing a second volley of shots as he turned to face them. Wright told investigators the man was transferring a rock from his left hand to his right, apparently preparing to throw again. At least one video shows movements consistent with that description, and investigators said a rock weighing nearly 3 pounds was found by Zambrano-Montes' body.
The shooting helped fuel a national debate over police use of force following several high-profile killings by police, including those of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York. Protesters expressed outrage that the officers had fired 17 times in a busy intersection in an effort to stop a man who was armed only with a rock, and who appeared to be suicidal and under the influence of drugs.
The Pasco Police Department said Wednesday it has nearly completed an internal review of the shooting, which prompted it to increase crisis-intervention training for its officers, launch efforts to recruit more Spanish-speaking officers and improve its communication with the local Hispanic community.
Zambrano-Montes was an out-of-work orchard worker who was in the country illegally and who had had several run-ins with police. In one case, he cut his forehead with a knife and asked officers to kill him. In another, just weeks before his death, Wright — the same officer who shot him — dragged him away from a fire at his small rental home.
Gov. Jay Inslee immediately asked Attorney General Bob Ferguson to review the charging decision, saying he would have wanted the decision reviewed whichever way it went.
"I want to ensure that people have confidence and trust in the decision that is made in this case," Inslee wrote in a letter to the attorney general. "It is critical that, in the wake of this tragic incident, the communities and leaders of the city of Pasco and Franklin County come together and continue their healing."
George Trejo Jr., a lawyer for Zambrano-Montes' wife and children, said in an email that he was disappointed with the prosecutor. This month, Trejo filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city and the three officers involved.
"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 wrote. "We are not surprised by this decision but disgusted and disappointed. This is precisely the reason why we continually asked for an independent criminal investigation."
The sentiment was echoed by the state Commission on Hispanic Affairs, which said it was concerned about the "dismissive nature" of the police and prosecutor in regard to the case. Hollering protesters interrupted Sant's news conference; the prosecutor answered several questions from them after making his announcement.
"They're saying it's OK for the police to murder people," one protester, Jeremy Peterson, said afterward.
One of the officers, Ryan Flanagan, has resigned to take another job in a move his lawyer said was unrelated to the shooting. The other two, Wright and Adrian Alaniz, remain on paid leave.
AP writer Gene Johnson contributed from Seattle.