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State high condemns former Grant Co. prosecutor’s conduct

| June 30, 2022 4:40 PM

OLYMPIA — The Washington State Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously overturned the 2017 conviction of a Moses Lake man charged with assaulting police officers, ruling that then-Grant County Prosecuting Attorney Garth Dano engaged in prosecutorial misconduct by by asking jurors their opinions of illegal immigration during jury selection.

“We conclude that the prosecutor’s questions and remarks apparently intentionally appealed to the jurors’ potential racial or ethnic bias, prejudice, or stereotypes and therefore constitute race-based prosecutorial misconduct,” wrote Associate Chief Justice Charles Johnson in the court’s majority opinion.

“I haven’t had time to review it,” Dano said Thursday of the ruling. “And I don’t want to say anything without reviewing the ruling.”

First elected in 2014, Dano resigned in December 2021, citing personal reasons.

In January 2017, Moses Lake Police Officers arrested Joseph Zamora while he was sitting in the driveway of his niece’s home after a call to 911 reported a possible prowler in the neighborhood. Fearing that Zamora had a weapon, police officers subdued Zamora, who was so injured as a result that he spent four weeks in intensive care, the court ruling said.

According to a footnote in Johnson’s ruling, Zamora later tested positive for amphetamine, methamphetamine and THC.

When Zamora’s trial began, Johnson wrote that Dano started jury selection by talking about border security, illegal immigration and crimes committed by illegal immigrants, eleciting sympathetic responses from potential jurors, at one point even arguing with a prospective juror who said that immigrants aren’t the only people who commit crimes in the United States.

Writing that both the U.S. and the Washington State constitutions guarantee the right to an impartial jury, Johnson said the county prosecuting attorney has an obligation to ensure that the rights of defendants are protected.

“Because the prosecutor is a representative of the State, it is especially damaging to these constitutional principles when the prosecutor introduces racial discrimination or bias into the jury system,” Johnson wrote, adding that protections against racial bias extend to jury selection and deliberations as well.

Johnson echoed the appellate court ruling which found that Dano’s invocation of border security and illegal immigration were irrelvent to Zamora’s case, and invoked ethnic stereotypes and promote a general fear of Latinos to sway potential jurors in a way that had nothing to do with the facts of the case.

“This case was not remotely related to immigration – lawful or unlawful. This case had nothing to do with borders or border security. Any mention of border security, immigration, undocumented immigrants, and drug smuggling was wholly irrelevant,” Johnson wrote.

“We conclude that a person who is aware of the history of race and ethnic discrimination in the United States and aware of implicit, institutional, and unconscious biases and purposeful discrimination could understand the prosecutor’s questions and comments as a flagrant or apparently intentional appeal to the jurors’ potential racial or ethnic bias toward Latinxs,” Johnson wrote.

“Accordingly, we hold that the prosecutor committed race-based misconduct,” Johnson wrote, noting the resulting prejudice required the overturning of Zamora’s conviction.

Charles H. Featherstone can be reached at cfeatherstone@columbiabasinherald.com.

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