Clark County District Court condemned Judge Darvin Zimmerman and a prominent law firm has called for his resignation Monday for comments he made last week critical of a Black man killed in a police shooting in Hazel Dell.
Meanwhile, Clark County Prosecutor Tony Golik said his office is taking immediate action to disqualify Zimmerman on criminal cases.
Zimmerman, whose comments with another court official were captured on video and viewable on YouTube for several hours, described Kevin Peterson Jr. as “the Black guy they were trying to make an angel out of,” and said he believed Peterson had a death wish and “was so dumb.”
The long-serving judge, whose son was on scene in the Oct. 29 shooting as a member of the Clark County Sheriff’s Office but did not fire his weapon, also claimed that Peterson’s father conceded to a police chaplain that the shooting was justified but, “the next day, he wakes up with dollar signs in his eyes and George Floyd’s attorneys had already contacted him.”
He said a GoFundMe page that he said claimed Peterson had been unarmed was “like getting money under false pretenses.” He also pointedly noted that, while the family of George Floyd received $20 million through such fundraisers, Peterson’s had received only about $70,000.
More on Zimmerman
When contacted about his comments by The Columbian, Zimmerman said “any time we lose a life, it is a tragedy; Kevin Peterson is no exception.” But he did not apologize for his statements or describe them as racist, nor did he respond to further inquiries about the reaction to his comments by the legal community or about the call for him to step down.
The court issued a statement Monday morning saying it has zero tolerance for racism. It said the statements made by Zimmerman do not reflect its values nor those of individual judges.
“Racial bias displayed by a judge is unacceptable, unethical, unjust and cannot be tolerated,” the court said, adding that it “denounces all forms of racism and will not allow racial bias to pervade our courtrooms.”
“Until all members of our community feel safe in our court and have trust in our system, we have not done our jobs. We shall strive for a system rooted in equity and fairness,” the statement reads.
Call for resignation
Vancouver Defenders, the largest defense firm in Southwest Washington, has called on Zimmerman to resign.
“Judge Zimmerman’s conduct erodes the public’s confidence in our judicial system. A judge’s independence, integrity, and impartiality are paramount in making our system work. When a judge fails to uphold the canons of his profession, he is no longer fit to serve. Judge Zimmerman should resign,” the firm said in a statement released Monday.
“The bias and the racism displayed in his comments have no place in our community and no place in our courtrooms. We must hold our judicial officers to a high standard so that everyone in our community has equal access to justice. Judge Zimmerman has shown that he cannot meet that standard and should resign,” the statement said.
Attorney Mark Lindquist, who is representing Peterson’s family, said Zimmerman misunderstands the basic facts of the shooting.
“Even more disturbing, he shows a total lack of empathy for a grieving father,” Lindquist said in a text Monday.
Golik said he found Zimmerman’s comments troubling, but he said he did not want to get into the details of what Zimmerman said, citing the ongoing independent review of the Peterson case.
“After reviewing the recording and discussing it within our office and reviewing the statement by the District Court judges, we determined, at this point, it’s appropriate to seek to disqualify Judge Zimmerman on criminal cases that we file,” Golik said in a phone interview.
“We will be filing affidavits in all of our cases and seek to have another judge assigned. We will start taking that action immediately. We will potentially reassess at some future time. But at this point, we think that’s the appropriate thing to do,” he said.
Judges are independently elected, but there are ways for them to be removed from office. One requires a joint resolution of the Legislature, in which three fourths of the members of each house concur. The other requires a decision by the Washington Supreme Court based on a recommendation from the Commission on Judicial Conduct, which is charged with investigating complaints of judicial misconduct or disability and can recommend that a judge be suspended, removed, or retired.
NAACP not surprised by comments
NAACP Vancouver said in a Facebook post that Zimmerman’s comments were not surprising. They reaffirm the blatant and systemic racism that is prevalent in Clark County, the post says.
The organization said it would continue to fight for justice, and leaders in the judicial system should have the cultural competency to understand why Black, Indigenous and people of color advocate for changes.
The “light-hearted careless conversation of such serious matters was disgusting,” the post says. The judge’s comments do not show an understanding of human life or the impacts of systemic racism, it says.
Reached by phone Monday, NAACP Vancouver President Jasmine Tolbert said the incident speaks to the importance of holding criminal justice officials, from law enforcement to judges, accountable for their actions.
“These comments put in question his integrity,” Tolbert said. “Like we were taught in grade school, integrity is what you do when no one is looking. We saw his potential bias from behind the scenes.”
NAACP Vancouver isn’t calling for Zimmerman to resign at this point, but it’s looking into how much time the judge has remaining on his term and what can be done about ensuring whoever replaces him is culturally competent.
Zimmerman was last reelected in 2018, and his term ends in 2022, according to the county’s website.
The Clark County Bar Association’s Board of Trustees issued this statement early Monday afternoon about Zimmerman:
“Racial bias at any level of our legal system is wholly unacceptable. We at the Clark County Bar Association are gravely concerned by Judge Zimmerman’s remarks from last week regarding Kevin Peterson Jr. and his family. As lawyers and representatives of our community, we must make a conscious effort to prioritize equity through our actions and words to ensure that all, but especially those that are underserved and underrepresented, have equal access to justice.”
Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins also weighed in on the controversy Monday, saying that he stands by his and the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office “Joint Statements on Hate,” released in August 2018. He said he stands by his previous words that the criminal justice system must be free of bias, provide equal protections for all, and serve to protect the most vulnerable members of our community.
“These remain difficult times in our community, for so many, and for so many reasons. Not the least of which for families grieving the loss of loved ones under circumstances that they have unanswered questions about. Irresponsible remarks, actions or deeds that originate from those within the criminal justice system can unfortunately reflect upon all of us within that system,” Atkins said.
Chat captured online
The recording captured Zimmerman chatting with District Court Commissioner Abbie Bartlett in an empty courtroom following his March 9 morning docket.
Bartlett, who didn’t respond much during the conversation, said in an email last week that “the fundamental job of the courts is to treat every person fairly. We cannot do that unless we can recognize and address the systemic racism that continues to be pervasive in our country and in our community.”
Presiding District Court Judge Kelli Osler said last week that Zimmerman was not speaking on behalf of the court, and she said that whatever was specifically said in his courtroom does not reflect the values of the Clark County District Court bench. She also noted that the court takes allegations of judicial misconduct very seriously.
The livestream of Zimmerman’s courtroom was removed from YouTube that night. A District Court administrator told The Columbian that’s a regular practice. The livestream had been made available through the county’s website to adhere to the state’s open courtroom laws during curtailed operations from COVID-19.
Zimmerman was first elected as a District Court judge in 1986. During his time with the court, he’s been appointed to several state judicial committees and has served as a mentor judge, training newly elected and appointed judges statewide.
Before his judgeship, he worked as a criminal prosecutor for 10 years and received “law enforcement commendations” including winning a landmark case in the state Supreme Court on victims’ rights, according to his county biography.
In 2013, Zimmerman was awarded the Local Hero Award by the state bar association for helping establish the Clark County Veterans Therapeutic Court. He also was awarded the first ever Star Award by the county’s DUI Traffic Safety Task Force for leadership in the field of traffic safety.
In an email, the judge said he has spent his entire life helping and mentoring mainly marginalized youth. He said he has seen firsthand, in his courtroom, the injustice wrought by the huge delays of getting people into Western State Hospital “as they wait in jails generally non-medicated for five months or more.”
In regards to his comments, Zimmerman said it is time “for us, as a society to move beyond vilifying on social media those sworn to uphold the law and protect us and allow investigations to follow their due course.”
Transcript of conversation
A transcript of the conversation (Editor’s note: The language and content of the transcript may be disturbing to some readers):
Zimmerman: (Unintelligible) Kevin Peterson, it’s going on five months now.
Bartlett: Who’s Kevin Peterson?
Zimmerman: The Black guy they were trying to make an angel out of. (Unintelligible) The one that was uh said, ‘I’m gonna feed bullets to the cops when I show up, if there’s cops there.’
Bartlett: Which was, was this a local case?
Zimmerman: He’s the Hazel Dell one.
Bartlett: Oh, OK, OK.
Zimmerman: So yeah. He’s the one that said “I’m a racist. I hate white people,” so I guess he hates his girlfriend, too.
Bartlett: Was he the one that was shot by the police in Hazel Dell?
Bartlett: OK. Yep, yep, yep. Got it.
Zimmerman: OK well, the cops are already back on the road, but my son was there (unintelligible).
Zimmerman: Luckily, he got the promotion to sergeant, because he could have been the shooter (chuckles).
Bartlett: Oh my God.
Zimmerman: And they’d be marching out at his house with signs saying, ‘You’re a murderer.’
Zimmerman: All that bullshit. It’s crazy. It is just crazy. Like his dad. His — I know so many people.
Bartlett: Uh huh. Yeah, you know everybody.
Zimmerman: In fact, I know more people than the sheriff knows (unintelligible) about this investigation. So I send him the information I find out about it. I ran into the chaplain who said he did the — whatever you call it — the thing after the fact, consoling everybody, you know, trying, you know, whatever about the deal. And he told me that KP’s dad says, ‘Well, yeah, he had a gun. I guess it was justified.’ And then the next day he wakes up with dollar signs in his eyes.
Bartlett: Oh no.
Zimmerman: And George Floyd attorneys had already contacted him. He has a GoFundMe page that said my unarmed son was murdered by the police. He knew his son had a gun. (Unintelligible). That’s like getting money under false pretenses. (Unintelligible). So he had $70,000 as opposed to George Floyd. (Unintelligible) George Floyd (unintelligible). George Floyd family got 20 million.
Zimmerman: So these attorneys just reach out to people; that’s their retainer.
Zimmerman: They’re never going to be a filing (unintelligible), because how can you ever win on a case like that? He’s got a gun.
Zimmerman: But that’s the whole thing now. I know (unintelligible) ask well, ‘Why were you a friend of his?’ Yeah, he was kind of a dipshit. We talked once in a while or chatted.
Bartlett: Uh huh.
Zimmerman: Even friends would say (unintelligible). Someone sent me, it was literally 2,367 pages. I said I don’t want this shit on my computer.
Bartlett: Of what?
Zimmerman: Of his hate mail.
Bartlett: Why’d they send it to you?
Zimmerman: Because they knew my son was involved in the incident.
Zimmerman: And the county is being sued. (Unintelligible) ‘I hate white people. I’m racist.’ And other people say, ‘Kevin, that’s stupid to say.’
Bartlett: You got to be careful though, like don’t get yourself embroiled in this.
Zimmerman: Oh no (unintelligible) I said, ‘Don’t send it to me, send it to risk management.’
Bartlett: That’s a good, that’s a good (unintelligible).
Zimmerman: (Unintelligible) But do you know?
Bartlett: Mm gosh.
Zimmerman: (Unintelligible) But do you know? You know, most people don’t. Even in the Columbian article, if you really look, get a look at the movie, they attach the movie, then you see, if you look just for (unintelligible) you see it’s little, because they couldn’t take it out of the description on the, whoever it was, was it Pierce County? Whoever released the first movie, it shows right there it says, ‘If you’re cop, if you’re a cop, I’m feeding you bullets.’
Bartlett: Uh huh.
Zimmerman: So when the police go out there, they kind of know he could be dangerous.
Zimmerman: I mean, how do you feed bullets
Zimmerman: if you don’t have a gun? If you listen to that tape, it’s my son Erik saying, ‘Look out! He’s got a gun!’ You know, he’s screaming. It’s the first voice you hear on that video is him warning them that he’s coming around the corner with a gun.
Bartlett: Uh huh.
Zimmerman: You don’t know who he’s going to shoot. He could shoot a pedestrian, I mean shoot somebody out there. But I think he had a death wish (unintelligible). I mean, he calls his girlfriend to say goodbye?
Bartlett: Oh wow.
Zimmerman: And then she won’t release her phone.
Zimmerman: So they really don’t know what texts he was saying.
Bartlett: Uh huh.
Zimmerman: He was so dumb. So another version was he thought he was going to go to prison for life, you know, for one deal. (Unintelligible) a year, he might get diversion, he might get drug court, but anyway, he was calling goodbye, and then supposedly, then she comes out with this false narrative that they shot him, you know, 30 times in the back. He didn’t get shot once in the back, you know?
Bartlett: Uh huh.
Zimmerman: But unfortunately he got shot. They were very, very convinced, and it still might be the story that he got two rounds off, because there’s two bullets missing out of the gun, assuming it was full.
Bartlett: Mm hmm, right.
Zimmerman: (Unintelligible) it’s 20, whatever, it’s 12, 12 shots.
Zimmerman: And then you have 10 in to begin with, then I guess it’s not missing two.
Zimmerman: They were even checking the guy. Erik said, ‘I was checking him for bullet holes.’ One guy thought he was shot. His adrenaline was going so much, he didn’t even know if he had been shot.
Bartlett: Oh my gosh.
Zimmerman: But they heard shots.
Zimmerman: So they thought he fired (unintelligible) you see the video, hell, they told him a couple times, ‘Drop your gun, drop your gun.’ And he didn’t drop his gun. He’s, you know, it shows him right there. And his dad says, ‘Well (unintelligible) (laughing).
Bartlett: So your son was there for the whole incident?
Bartlett: Your son was there?
Zimmerman: Oh yeah. Yeah.
Bartlett: How’s he doing?
Zimmerman: (Unintelligible) He actually met, what was it, he met with one of the guys.
Zimmerman: (Unintelligible) yeah, he met with one of the guys, just to go visit with him. Talk. (Unintelligible) They never released once that one of the shooters was Black.
Bartlett: One of the police officers, or?
Zimmerman: Yeah, I guess it doesn’t match some narrative (unintelligible).
Bartlett: Yeah, oh gosh.
Zimmerman: (Unintelligible) If it’s such a big racial deal, then you should (unintelligible). He obviously thought he was going to get killed himself, he shot him. He was Black. It wouldn’t have mattered if the guy was green (chuckles) is the point. But it’s just this narrative that there’s like (unintelligible) killing minorities (chuckles) (unintelligible).
Bartlett: Gosh. Yeah, every, everything…
Zimmerman: There’s even an article I saw that, I sent it to other people, I sent it to my son (unintelligible) NAACP, and I was (unintelligible) a lifetime member. My first job out of college working at an all Black community center.
Bartlett: Uh huh.
Bartlett: Uh huh.
Bartlett: That’s good. It’s good to feel what that feels like I think.
Bartlett: It’s important.
Zimmerman: Yeah, but anyway, (unintelligible).
Zimmerman: I coached and counseled
Bartlett: Uh huh.
Zimmerman: and did all kinds of stuff.
Zimmerman: But this lady, she talks about the Blacks being murdered here in Clark County, allegedly armed, allegedly? (Unintelligible) throw that stuff out there. You don’t know the facts; it’s not allegedly.
Zimmerman: He had a frickin’ gun, and they got it on video. And you put this uh, you know, distrust out there in the community. It’s still the same thing. They want to argue that because there’s whatever (unintelligible) 4 percent Blacks in Clark County, but there’s 12 percent Blacks in the jail. So does that mean we’re automatically racist?
Bartlett: Mm hmm.
Zimmerman: Does it?
Bartlett: Not necessarily, I mean…
Zimmerman: Well yeah, it doesn’t (Unintelligible) Three Black guys shot and robbed this guy. (Unintelligible) time in the Clark County Jail.
Zimmerman: You know, they won’t go to trial for a year or so,
Zimmerman: … and then they’ll be off to prison for (unintelligible) years for robbery and shooting somebody, and they pistol whipped him, too.
Bartlett: Mm hmm.
Zimmerman: They were not nice kids, put it that way. And he was a Spanish guy, so is that racist? I don’t know.
Bartlett: Every, every, the bottom line is every case is different. We have to look at the facts of every single case.
Zimmerman: Oh yeah.
Bartlett: But there’s so much anger out there now.
Zimmerman: Oh yeah, I agree.
Bartlett: I just feel like we’re falling off a cliff.
Zimmerman: (Unintelligible) I remember this one lady, she accused, it was after the fact, and she was a Black lady and she accused me of being racist, whatever. I said, ‘OK, I was racist because I ruled against you, but you admit that this brand new Brazilian hardwood floors that she didn’t like the color of it, so you rolled it all in white? (Chuckles) And the, you know, the landlord.
Bartlett: Mm hmm.
Zimmerman: I’m trying to remember what they were.
Bartlett: Oh, is this small claim?
Zimmerman: Yeah, small claims. I said, ‘Yeah, because they’re like brand new, $6,000 for the Brazilian floor,’ and they came in and said they need $2,000 to sand off all of the white paint, and they don’t even know if they can get it back to the original thing.
Bartlett: Mm hmm.
Zimmerman: I said, back then (unintelligible) whatever it was I said, it could have been five, but anyway, you know, so I ruled against the, you know, the other minority couple (chuckles), not because they were (unintelligible) or whatever, but because they were right. She just had it in her mind; I mean she was mental.
Zimmerman: She said it was too depressing to have the dark floor (unintelligible).
Bartlett: Oh, and she was just a tenant?
Zimmerman: Oh yeah, she was a tenant.
Bartlett: And she painted all of the Brazilian floors white?
Zimmerman: Oh yeah, white.
Bartlett: And then the landlord wanted to recoup that damage it sounds like?
Zimmerman: Oh yeah, to get it back to…
Bartlett: Oh no, that’s awful.
Zimmerman: It was awful (unintelligible).
Bartlett: Oh, God; that’s awful. How did she not think she’d have to pay for that? Come on now.
Zimmerman: I know because she…
Bartlett: Did she think she was improving it, like had made it better? They owe me money for the paint?
Zimmerman: No, she wanted, it was depressing to have dark floors.
Bartlett: Oh, got it.
Zimmerman: You have dark floors, (unintelligible) would you paint them white?
Bartlett: I mean, I don’t know, I guess I can’t know until I’m in that situation. OK so really quickly with the…