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Family of Jenoah Donald files wrongful death lawsuit against Clark County, involved deputies in federal court

By , Columbian staff writer, and
, Columbian Assistant Metro Editor
Published:
4 Photos
From left, Logan Shorthill, Misty Shorthill and Josh Shorthill listen on while Sue Zawacki, Jenoah Donald's mother, speaks at a press conference on Thursday, Feb. 17, at the Aero Club in Salmon Creek. The family of Jenoah Donald, who was fatally shot by a Clark County Sheriff's deputy last February, held the press conference to answer questions regarding the wrongful death claim they filed in June.
From left, Logan Shorthill, Misty Shorthill and Josh Shorthill listen on while Sue Zawacki, Jenoah Donald's mother, speaks at a press conference on Thursday, Feb. 17, at the Aero Club in Salmon Creek. The family of Jenoah Donald, who was fatally shot by a Clark County Sheriff's deputy last February, held the press conference to answer questions regarding the wrongful death claim they filed in June. (Joshua Hart/For The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The family of Jenoah Donald, a Black motorist killed by a Clark County sheriff’s deputy in February 2021, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the county Thursday and said they hope its outcome will ensure no other family has to suffer a similar loss.

The 15-page complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Tacoma alleges wrongful death, assault and battery, negligence, and deprivation of civil rights. It names as defendants Deputy Sean Boyle, who shot Donald; Deputy Holly Troupe, who struggled with Donald in his car; Sheriff Chuck Atkins; and multiple unknown sheriff’s office employees.

In a news release announcing the lawsuit on behalf of its clients, Tacoma-based Herrmann Law Group alleged “Clark County has a policy, custom and established practice of failing to train its officers to use deadly force only as a last resort.”

A panel of prosecuting attorneys from outside Clark County examined the shooting and found that the deputies acted in good faith that night.

Change sought

Sue Zawacky, Donald’s mother, said at a Thursday press conference that she wants the lawsuit to result in change.

“I’ve said from the beginning that this could have been any of us — any of us — and that came true here recently,” she said. “I don’t understand how it’s allowed to continually — you know, you don’t get to say ‘oops’ — this is serious. People are getting killed at the hands of law enforcement.” 

The lawsuit alleges that Donald, 30, was “unlawfully stopped for suspicion of drug use under the pretext of a defective rear light” by Boyle on Feb. 4, 2021, in Hazel Dell.

The family had filed a tort claim against Clark County in June before filing the lawsuit, as required by state law. At that time, they said they were seeking $17 million. The federal lawsuit does not specify the damages sought. 

In the lawsuit, the firm cites a 1999 Washington Supreme Court case that found it is unconstitutional for police to use a traffic stop as an excuse to investigate suspected criminal activity.

Attorneys for the family said Donald was cooperative when he was stopped. But the situation escalated after Troupe said she saw a sharp object in Donald’s vehicle, which investigators said they later determined was a screwdriver.

The law firm’s news release states that Donald was on the autism spectrum and prone to withdrawal in stressful situations.

An outside investigation showed Donald, Boyle and Troupe struggled inside Donald’s Mercedes sedan, as the deputies tried to pull him from the car. Boyle fired twice when Donald ignored commands to let him go as the car lurched forward with the deputy partially inside, according to investigators.

Donald died Feb. 12 of a gunshot wound to the head. Zawacky said that when officers knocked on their front door on the night of the shooting, they told the family that Donald had died, but when they got to the hospital, he was still on life support.

Zawacky said the past year has “permanently changed me” and that the holiday season was particularly hard. 

“I can forgive a thousand times, but I can’t forget once,” she said. 

Donald’s brother, Josh Shorthill, said he hopes the lawsuit will also offer his family some clarity after accounts of that day changed with further investigation. He called learning the circumstances of his brother’s death as “one of the worst roller coasters you could ever be on.”

“The issue I’m having is I don’t understand,” he said. “I don’t understand what led up to (Boyle) shooting my brother. I want to understand. If I could ask for one thing it’s just understanding and a better idea of why this is happening to me and my family.”

According to investigative reports, Donald did not possess a firearm, and he did not appear to brandish any weapons during the encounter.

Outside panel’s findings

The investigation into the shooting was examined by a panel of prosecutors from Lewis, Yakima, Pend Oreille, Snohomish and Pierce counties. The panel was assembled by the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys to help assess whether the deputies’ actions were legally justified.

In July, the panel found Boyle acted in “good faith.” That is, a similarly situated law enforcement officer would have also used deadly force under the circumstances.

While the panel backed the use of deadly force against Donald, it raised a question about how deputies initially interacted with him.

“What started as a ‘simple’ traffic stop for a defective taillight quickly escalated. The reviewing members cannot say the outcome would have been different, but it does not appear Mr. Donald was ever asked to step out of the vehicle, or had it explained to him why the request was being made,” the report reads.

The family’s lawsuit states that Clark County failed “to supervise and adequately train officers on de-escalation techniques, non-lethal tactics, the decision-making process preceding use of deadly force, and how to interact with citizens suffering from behavioral health issues such as autism.”

“This is a bigger issue than one or two officers,” attorney Mark Lindquist said in the news release.

The shooting occurred less than a mile from the site of the Oct. 29, 2020, fatal shooting of Kevin Peterson Jr., a 21-year-old Black man. Clark County sheriff’s deputies fatally shot Peterson as he ran from an undercover Xanax pill sting.

Peterson’s family, also represented by Herrmann Law Group, filed a wrongful death tort claim against the county in March 2021. That shooting was also ruled as justified by an outside prosecutor’s office.

“After the shooting of Kevin Peterson and after the shooting of Jenoah Donald, to the best of our knowledge, there wasn’t discipline, there wasn’t retraining, there was no cultural adjustment,” Lindquist said. “And if there had been, perhaps we wouldn’t have seen the shooting of Officer (Donald) Sahota.”

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