Washington judges quash racist interrogation by prosecutor

SEATTLE (AP) — The Washington Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously overturned a man’s conviction for assaulting police officers and a series of racist remarks made by the prosecutor handling the case.

During the jury selection in the Joseph Zamora trial, Garth Dano, who was then the elected prosecutor in Grant County in central Washington, repeatedly asked prospective jurors how they felt about illegal immigration, border security, and crimes committed by illegal immigrants — even though they were Zamora is a US citizen and the case had nothing to do with those issues.

The questions raised racist stereotypes that violated Zamora’s right to a fair trial, the judges said. They also expressed concern about the brutal beatings officers gave Zamora, which left him in a coma. Chief Justice Steven González noted that “among other things, the jury was asked to decide whether Joseph Zamora, a U.S. citizen, assaulted a police officer’s knuckles with the back of his head.”

“This case had nothing to do with immigration — legal or illegal,” Judge Charles Johnson wrote for the court. “The apparent purpose of the comments was to highlight the alleged ethnicity of the suspect and invoke stereotypes that Latinx people are ‘criminal’ and ‘wrongful’ in the country, are involved in criminal activities such as drug smuggling, and pose a threat to the safety of ‘Americans.’”

The decision introduced a new rule in Washington that when a prosecutor “blatantly or seemingly intentionally invokes possible racial or ethnic bias, prejudice or stereotypes” of a juror, any conviction must be automatically reversed.

Previously, prosecutors had a chance to show that race-based misconduct did not affect the outcome of the case and was “innocent”.

Dano was elected district attorney in 2014 for Grant County, a fruit-growing region with high numbers of migrant workers. A critic of Democratic administration Jay Inslee’s coronavirus restrictions, he resigned in December for personal reasons.

At the court level, Dano told the judge, expressing concern about his manner of interrogation, “I have in no way implied or implied to the jury that the defendant is not a citizen of the country or is here illegally.”

He did not immediately return an email from The Associated Press requesting comment on the ruling.

Zamora’s encounter with the Moses Lake Police Department took place on the night of February 5, 2017, when he walked through a foot (30.5 cm) of snow to his niece’s house. A neighbor saw him, thought he looked suspicious and called the police to report a possible car theft; there was no evidence that any cars had been broken into, and the judges said Zamora was guilty of nothing more than “walking while high.”

Officer Kevin Hake responded and put Zamora in his niece’s yard. When Zamora didn’t respond to Hake’s questions and turned to walk away, Hake grabbed him, fearing he might have a weapon.

The officer pushed him to the ground and jumped on him, putting him in a stranglehold, spraying pepper spray into his mouth and eyes and hitting him about 100 times before pushing the barrel of his rifle down Zamora’s throat, according to an account filed by Zamora’s attorney . The officer said Zamora was trying to take his gun.

Several other officers arrived, carrying pepper spray, punches and a taser on him, saying Zamora resisted and kicked them. A neighbor testified that Zamora had not resisted or fought with Hake, and that he lay face down in the snow while other officers beat him.

The neighbor testified that he saw a cop use a stranglehold on Zamora even after he was tied up, and he heard Zamora use words that have become familiar since the murder of George Floyd, a black man, by the Minneapolis Police Department in 2020: I can not breathe.”

When paramedics arrived, Zamora had no pulse. It took them seven minutes to resuscitate him; he was taken to a hospital and remained in intensive care for about four weeks. He tested positive for methamphetamine and marijuana, and an examination of his jacket after his arrest revealed a pocket knife.

An investigation into the use of force by the Moses Lake Police Department found no wrongdoing by the officers. Hake left the department four months after the incident and was no longer a law enforcement officer at the time of the trial.

The Supreme Court said it had serious concerns that “a citizen’s misreport of vehicular sneaking led to a violent altercation with police officers that nearly resulted in the death of the defendant who was guilty of nothing but walking while high.” of drugs.”

But the reason it overturned Zamora’s convictions on two charges of third-degree assault against a law enforcement officer was the prosecutor’s questioning of potential jurors.

Dano repeatedly asked members of the jury whether they thought the US had adequate border security and how they felt about crimes committed by illegal immigrants. When someone replied that she didn’t think it was just illegal immigrants committing crimes, he asked for a follow-up.

“Can you make room for the possibility that someone who – a loved one or relative of someone who has been murdered or is in trouble with someone who has been previously deported or is a criminal, is wrongfully in the country, that that is happening to them, and that they feel that we need more border security, can you make room for that?” he asked.

Superior Court judge John Antosz was so concerned about such comments that he asked Zamora’s lawyer, outside the jury, why he did not object. The attorney replied that he did not think the prosecution’s questions helped the state’s case. In his opening statement, the attorney told the jurors that Zamora was not an immigrant.

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