The investigation into the shooting of Jenoah Donald, a Black motorist killed by a Clark County deputy, will be examined by a statewide panel of prosecutors in a new move to create independence in the review process.
The panel was created by the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys to help assess whether the deputy’s actions were legally justified. Donald’s case will be the first reviewed under the new model. The panel includes the elected prosecutors from Lewis, Yakima, Pend Oreille, Snohomish and Pierce counties.
“I do think that this is a process that (people) will be supportive of, because it will truly be an independent review,” Clark County prosecutor Tony Golik said in a phone interview Tuesday.
The panel received the investigative materials last week and will make a recommendation to Golik, who will also review the investigation and make the final determination.
Association president Jonathan Meyer, the Lewis County prosecutor, selected the participating prosecutors after Golik’s request for a panel review. He said his selections were based on similarly sized counties and the desire to have association leadership involved in an effort to achieve continuity.
Meyer said he has asked everyone to review the investigative documents. The group hopes to meet at the end of next week, he said, to discuss the next steps.
“The goal is obviously to reach the right conclusion and have an open and transparent process, even if you don’t agree with the conclusion reached,” Meyer said in a phone interview Wednesday.
Both Meyer and Golik said the association will assess this new approach as it progresses to determine whether to implement it as a regular process, if consensus is reached, and if adjustments are needed. Meyer said his hope is that the association will get a variety of prosecutors to serve on the panel.
At this point, it is up to each county prosecutor to decide whether to review a shooting investigation or ask for assistance from the panel or an outside prosecutor’s office.
“Our role as an association is to be there when members ask for help,” Meyer said. “We all take a cautious approach because we understand our role and obligations — not only to reach the right answer, but so people have confidence in the process.”
Family wants local decision
Donald, 30, of Battle Ground, Clark County, died Feb. 12, eight days after he was shot once in the head by Deputy Sean Boyle. Deputies responding to a neighborhood call in Hazel Dell had stopped Donald for having a bad taillight. Investigators said Donald, Boyle and another deputy struggled inside Donald’s car, and Boyle fired when Donald ignored commands to let him go.
Golik said he is aware that Donald’s mother, Sue Zawacky, thinks he should make the final decision in the shooting review.
Attorney Mark Lindquist, of Tacoma-based Herrmann Law Group, who is representing Donald’s family, confirmed that sentiment.
In a text message Wednesday, Lindquist said he had not yet spoken with Zawacky about the panel review, but he said, “I appreciate the reasoning behind the proposed approach.”
Golik and other senior prosecutors in his office traditionally have reviewed use of deadly force by local law-enforcement officers. But for the last year, he has asked outside county prosecutors to review local police shootings, beginning with the investigation of the shooting of William Abbe.
Three Vancouver police officers fatally shot Abbe, who was homeless, on April 28, 2020, while responding to an assault between him and another man at Fourth Plain Boulevard and Stapleton Road.
Golik said there was high community interest in Abbe’s killing and calls for an independent review. Among them, NAMI Southwest Washington wrote a letter to his office asking for an outside review, which “seemed like a reasonable request,” he said.
Since Abbe’s shooting — which was reviewed by the Thurston County Prosecutor’s Office and found to be lawful — Golik has asked for every local police shooting to be reviewed by an outside agency.
Golik said the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, a month after Abbe’s shooting, was a turning point in how police use of deadly force should be reviewed.
“I think there was clearly an awakening in our country that we have serious issues that we need to address in the justice system,” he said. “Prosecutors around the country, in my opinion, should be open-minded and try our best to increase public confidence in the work we do. This is one clear area that we need to address.”
Years in the making
The panel approach was modeled after a process used by prosecutors in potential death-penalty cases, though that process was less formal, Golik said.
“When a local prosecutor had a case where they were considering whether to file notice of intent to seek the death penalty, they could ask for a group of prosecutors to convene and review the facts of the case to aid in that decision-making process,” he said.
That model was raised during the association’s years long discussions on how best to address issues of independence and local jurisdiction in police-shooting reviews, Golik said.
Golik said he’s aware of community concerns regarding prosecutors’ close working relationships with law enforcement and being entrusted to review police shootings.
“It is a legitimate concern, and that is the concern that I’m trying to address to create independence,” he said.
Police shooting reviews must be completed by a valid prosecutorial authority, Golik explained, so that means county prosecutors or the Attorney General’s Office are the only current options.
“The Legislature looked at this issue this last session, and they created a scheme for a new statewide investigative agency. But the scheme for a statewide, independent prosecutorial agency did not go forward in this last session,” Golik said.
House Bill 1267 will create an Office of Independent Investigations, under the purview of the governor, to look into officer cases involving deadly force, injury or sexual assault. A separate proposal for an Office of Independent Prosecution was also brought before the Legislature, but it did not make it out of committee.
Multiple factors were considered in deciding to try the panel method on Donald’s shooting investigation — the timing of the shooting and legislative session, as well as lawmakers’ decision not to move forward on the issue, Golik said.
In looking at cases around the country, he said, “this issue with seeking independence is one that is in the media right now and will continue to be, and will continue to be assessed and improved upon.”