A Clark County judge apparently didn’t realize his courtroom conversation was live on YouTube as he referred to young man killed last fall by sheriff’s deputies as “the Black guy they are trying to make an angel out of” and called him “dumb” for supposedly thinking he would go to prison for a relatively small drug bust.
District Court Judge Darvin Zimmerman, 70, also said Kevin Peterson Jr. “had a death wish” as well as disparaging Peterson’s father and defending his own son, a deputy who was on the drug task force trying to arrest Peterson.
Zimmerman made the remarks Monday and on Saturday said he was “truly sorry if I offended anyone.”
Zimmerman can be heard on a recording obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive saying he spoke with a chaplain who responded to the shooting that night and then relaying that Peterson’s father acknowledged to the chaplain that his son had a gun. Kevin Peterson Sr. also had gone to the scene.
Referring to the elder Peterson, Zimmerman said: “The next day he wakes up with dollar signs in his eyes and George Floyd’s attorneys.”
Floyd died last year under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer now facing trial on murder and manslaughter charges.
The Peterson family’s attorney, Mark Lindquist, called the judge’s remarks “deeply disturbing.”
“Kevin Peterson Sr.’s son was shot and killed,” Lindquist said in a text message to The Oregonian/OregonLive. “Imagine his pain. The judge apparently cannot. His lack of empathy for a grieving father, his lack of a sense of shared humanity, is part of the problem.”
He said judges need to “act and speak with wisdom and compassion. We all know judges have biases, but we expect them to rise above those biases.”
The judge said the conversation in his courtroom was a private one and was related to concerns about delays in toxicology testing.
“My lifetime goal has been and will be to be fair to everyone,” he said in a text message to The Oregonian/OregonLive.
“I truly wish he was not killed and did surrender,” he said of Peterson. If so, he said, Peterson could have gone through one of the specialty courts in Clark County.
Presiding District Court Judge Kelli Osler could not be reached for comment Saturday.
The judge’s conversation was captured because the court had been livestreaming a hearing on YouTube that day and the recording continued streaming even though the hearing had ended. Zimmerman was apparently unaware that his comments were being broadcast.
Zimmerman, a longtime judge first elected to the bench in 1986, spent a total of 45 minutes talking with District Court Commissioner Abigail Bartlett in his courtroom. He spent about nine minutes discussing his views of the Peterson case. Some of the audio is not clear.
The judge told Bartlett that his son, Erik Zimmerman, is employed by the Clark County Sheriff’s Office as a sergeant and was among those involved in the Peterson case.
The judge said his son had been promoted to sergeant and wasn’t one of the three deputies who fired on Peterson.
“He could have been a shooter and then they would be marching out at his house with signs saying, ‘You’re a murderer’ and all that bullshit,” the judge said.
Investigative records show Erik Zimmerman, an 18-year veteran of the Clark County Sheriff’s Office, was assigned to surveillance during the drug sting. He told investigators that Peterson ignored police commands to put his hands up and that he saw Peterson reach for something in the car. He saw Peterson flee, investigative records say, with something “bulky” in his pocket and then heard a detective say Peterson was armed with a gun. He also later reported that he, too, saw Peterson with a gun.
Peterson, 21, of Camas was killed on Oct. 29 in Hazel Dell, an unincorporated community in Clark County northwest of Vancouver. Members of a regional drug task force planned to arrest Peterson on an accusation of attempted delivery of controlled substances for allegedly dealing Xanax, the prescription anxiety medication, according to police accounts.
The judge told Bartlett that Peterson thought he was going to prison for the rest of his life for the drug deal.
“He was so dumb,” Zimmerman said, adding that he would have sent Peterson to drug court or into a diversion program.
The judge also remarked that he probably knows more about the investigation than the sheriff because he knows “so many people.”
“I send him the information I find out about it,” Zimmerman said.
(The following video is a condensed version of Zimmerman’s remarks regarding the Peterson case.)
Bartlett spent most of the conversation listening to Zimmerman, though at one point she warned him to be careful about not getting too involved. According to her biography posted to the county website, Bartlett is a former prosecutor in Clark County.
“You’ve got to be careful though, like, don’t get yourself embroiled in this,” she told him.
The judge also suggested that the investigators’ conclusion that Peterson did not fire his gun may be wrong.
“Unfortunately, he got shot, but they were very, very convinced – and it still might be the story – that he got two rounds off,” the judge said, adding that two rounds were missing from the chamber of Peterson’s gun.
He said he doesn’t think any lawsuit by the Peterson family has much of a chance of succeeding because Peterson was armed.
Zimmerman took issue with a local NAACP chapter leader who raised alarm over the killing of Peterson.
“This lady, she talks about the Blacks being murdered here in Clark County,” he said, adding that the woman characterized Peterson as “allegedly armed.”
“Allegedly?” he said. “Why throw that stuff out there? … It’s not allegedly. He had a frickin’ gun. They got it on video.”
Lucian Pera, an authority on legal ethics and a lawyer at the firm of Adams and Reese in Memphis, Tennessee, said judges are supposed to adhere to a code of conduct requiring them to act in ways that promotes impartiality and avoid the appearance of impropriety.
“It’s imprudent for judges to engage in comments like that,” he said of Zimmerman’s remarks.
“The prohibitions on statements by judges actually is much broader than many people, including some judges, assume,” he said. “Certainly, there are prohibitions on judges talking about cases before them outside the courtroom, but there are also prohibitions on statements by judges in any other context really, whether it’s on Facebook or as a speaker at a Jaycees lunch or something like that or frankly even if it’s among a group of friends at a casual social dinner.”
In the Peterson case, three Clark County deputies fired a total of 34 rounds, striking him four times, as he fled from his car in the parking lot of a Quality Inn and ran to a nearby parking lot of a closed U.S. Bank in the business district, investigators have said.
Peterson had a .40-caliber Glock 23 semiautomatic handgun and ignored commands to drop it, investigators said. All three deputies who fired said Peterson pointed the gun at them, according to investigative reports.
Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins initially said it appeared Peterson fired his gun, but the subsequent investigation showed he had not. Peterson died at the scene. An outside prosecutor currently is reviewing the shooting.
Peterson’s death touched off several tense demonstrations in Vancouver decrying the killing of a Black man by police in the wake of demands for social justice reforms nationwide after Floyd’s killing. Since Peterson’s shooting, a Clark County deputy shot another Black man, Jenoah Donald, 30, on Feb. 12 in a struggle during a traffic stop.