After investigators last week finished their probe of Jenoah Donald’s fatal police shooting, they delivered about 1,500 pages of their work into the hands of the Clark County Prosecutor’s Office.
Now begins a crucial, final step. A county prosecutor will pore over the documents and decide if Clark County Sheriff’s deputies acted justifiably in the Feb. 4 traffic stop that turned deadly – or whether to press charges.
The only question: Which county prosecutor?
In Washington state, the criminal review of a deadly force incident typically falls to elected prosecutors of the county where it occurred. But prosecutors in Clark County, purportedly to bolster independence, have increasingly asked prosecutors other counties to review police shootings in their districts.
Sue Zawacky, Donald’s mother, told OPB she’d resist such a move in her son’s case. Donald, a 30-year-old Black man, was shot in the head after the traffic stop devolved into a physical fight. He died after a week on life support.
Zawacky told OPB that Clark County Prosecutor Tony Golik should shoulder the responsibility.
“This happened in Clark County. He’s the Clark County prosecutor,” she said. “I feel like it’s his job to make this decision and be accountable, and a lot of people I talked to feel the same way.”
Golik responded by saying there are good arguments for and against outsourcing the legal reviews, but said he favors it because it separates conflicts of interest.
“I certainly have heard a lot more from the community advocates within Clark County over the last year arguing for more independence, rather than less,” he said.
The question comes at an important juncture for two local, high-profile shootings. Golik said he is actively looking to send Donald’s case to another county. Meanwhile, the review of the shooting of Kevin Peterson Jr.’s is due in the coming weeks.
Golik’s recent decisions to send the reviews out have garnered mixed reactions among civil rights advocates and local attorneys. They wonder if they aren’t gaining independence, but rather losing the ability to hold a local official accountable.
The question has also spotlighted an often-overlooked piece of the broad police reform conversation that may take shape in years to come.
Starting last April, outcry over Vancouver police fatally shooting a 50-year-old homeless man led Golik to outsource his review for the first time. It’s become a common pattern since.
On April 28, 2020, three Vancouver Police Department officers shot and killed William Abbe, a diagnosed schizophrenic, after he hit another man with a metal bar.
Bystanders’ visceral footage of Abbe’s death led civil rights groups to write a letter saying they lacked confidence in Golik’s office to review it. They cited a string of shootings in 2019, which were all deemed justified.
Golik said he stood by past reviews, but nonetheless relinquished the review to Thurston County.
“It really started with the Abbe case where, really, a great number of groups and citizens within the community were saying they thought an outside, independent prosecutor was a more appropriate approach,” Golik said in a recent interview.
“I had been discussing the issue with other prosecutors, but that was the first that took that route,” he added.
Since then, a handful more police shootings have followed. Some reviews have finished. Still, the highest-profile among them remains anticipated.
Thurston County prosecutors reviewed not only Abbe’s fatal shooting but also the Nov. 26 shooting of Irving Diaz Rodriguez which left him paralyzed below the waist.
Led by Jon Tunheim, Thurston County prosecutors deemed Abbe’s shooting justified in October. They then deemed Rodriguez’s shooting justified March 31.
The Oct. 4 shooting of Andrew Williams by Vancouver police was sent to Cowlitz County. Cowlitz County officials did not respond to questions Tuesday regarding the status of the review.
Meanwhile, Kevin Peterson Jr.’s fatal shooting during an attempted drug sting, which drew protests and counter-protests, is under review by Pierce County. That could complete in April or May, according to one Pierce County prosecutor.
Before his election in 2011, Golik spent a decade assigned to major crimes teams specializing in homicides, according to his official website. He said he’s been a proponent of both independent investigations and independent legal review.
“We should do everything we can to make sure people doing investigations and prosecutor review don’t have real close ties with the person being investigated,” he said. “I think those are pretty reasonable, basic concepts that we should be trying to meet.”
Independence vs accountability
Golik has publicly supported legislation that would create new entities both to independently investigate deadly force and to independently review those investigations.
While a bill to form an Office of Independent Investigations is marching its way through the Washington Legislature, a companion bill for independent prosecutions never gained traction.
Rep. Debra Entenman, D-Kent, who sponsored both bills, noted that independent prosecution would take amending Washington’s Constitution. She added that some prosecutors don’t share Golik’s support.
“Not everybody’s on the same page about prosecutorial responsibilities, and ceding prosecutorial responsibilities,” she said.
With those decisions remaining in county prosecutors’ hands for the foreseeable future, some who have lost loved ones to police violence, like Zawacky, view sending the prosecutions away as shirking an important duty.
Zawacky’s attorney told OPB that any ruling of justified or not won’t impede the family’s eventual civil case against Clark County. He said her statements only came from the perspective that an elected official should make those decisions.
Angus Lee, a Vancouver-based defense attorney and former Grant County prosecutor, called it “political insulation” from voters who might disagree with his findings.
“We don’t have elected county prosecutors to make easy decisions. We have them, specifically, for the hard decisions,” Lee said. “You’re disenfranchising the local electorate.”
It’s unclear how often such decisions occur across the state. The Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys does not collect data on the issue, but Executive Director Russell Brown said Clark County is not typical.
Brown said some elected prosecutors will always review unless there’s a clear conflict of interest. But, he added, that most Washington counties haven’t seen as much public scrutiny as Clark County in the last year.
“You’re looking at a higher number in a certainly more challenging environment,” he said.
For example, Nickeia Hunter signed the letter last year calling for Golik to send the Abbe review elsewhere. She said she wouldn’t do it again.
Hunter, who became a vocal police reform advocate after Vancouver police shot her brother Carlos Hunter in 2019, said she now would only support an independent entity to review. She said she doesn’t regret last year’s letter because it showed her more work to be done.
“We had good intent and a hopeful outcome,” Hunter said. “But it shed more light.”
Correction: A previous version of this article inaccurately stated which counties handled the reviews of the police shootings of Irving Diaz Rodriguez and Andrew Williams.