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June 28, 2022

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Clark County judge orders release of Sahota shooting investigation

Attorney for Julio Cesar Segura — charged with murder in the Vancouver police officer's death — had sought to block public access

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Investigative documents related to the Jan. 29 slaying of an off-duty Vancouver police officer are set to become public, despite attempts to block their release by defense attorneys involved in the case.

A Clark County Superior Court judge on Thursday denied a motion by attorneys representing Julio Cesar Segura, the 20-year-old Yakima man whose police chase culminated with a Clark County Sheriff’s Office deputy shooting and killing Vancouver police Officer Donald Sahota.

Segura’s defense attorneys filed a series of motions over the last month in criminal court to block the release of investigative records. They cited a Washington Public Records Act exemption, arguing Segura is a witness to a crime and that releasing his information in the records could endanger him. The defense further argued it didn’t matter if some of the information is already public.

The claim came in response to multiple requests for copies of the investigation. Reporters from The Columbian and Oregon Public Broadcasting, as well as Vancouver defense attorney Josephine Townsend, sought the records.

The records are set to be released Friday and may provide details about the chaotic night.

According to court records and investigators, Segura led deputies on a car chase throughout the county after robbing an Orchards convenience store at gunpoint. The chase ended near Battle Ground, where Segura crashed his car and ran. He eventually arrived at the home of 52-year-old Sahota.

Investigators said Segura tried to enter Sahota’s home, and the two men fought in the driveway. Segura allegedly stabbed Sahota three times during the struggle.

Investigators said that when Deputy Jonathan Feller arrived, he mistook Sahota — who was carrying a pistol — for Segura. Feller fired multiple rounds from his rifle. The Clark County Medical Examiner’s Office concluded Sahota died from gunshot wounds to the torso. Though Feller shot Sahota, prosecutors are making the case that Segura’s actions led to the killing, and they have charged him with multiple felonies, including murder.

The incident prompted an outside investigation led by the Lower Columbia Major Crimes Team based out of Cowlitz County. The agency announced March 4 it had completed its probe.

With the investigation complete, prosecutors will review whether Feller should also face criminal charges. Feller, 47, is also one of three deputies who shot and killed 21-year-old Kevin Peterson Jr. in October 2020. Prosecutors deemed that shooting justified.

Segura’s attorneys argued in court that releasing the records could taint jury selection.

“It may impact the jury,” defense attorney Ed Dunkerly said. “We’re saying ‘may impact,’ but we can’t say that it will impact.”

Investigations are routinely made public once completed. In cases involving deadly force by law enforcement, the investigations provide granular detail into an incident. The investigations typically include photographs and video from the scene, as well as interviews with those involved and witnesses.

The attempted block is an unusual move, government transparency advocates said. Katherine George, of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said she had never encountered a situation like this.

“From the open government perspective, any time that a court is asked to block disclosure of records, the public’s interest in the records has to be considered,” George said. “We’re talking about a fatal incident involving law enforcement. This just screams public interest.”

The Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, which is handling the release of records, wrote in a brief that it did not have a stance on the records’ disclosure. Prosecutor Tony Golik did not respond to a question via email about why his office did not take a stance.

George said it is typical of a government agency to “sit on the sidelines and let the requestor duke it out with the party wanting secrecy.” She added that agencies often abstain from getting involved because, if they oppose disclosure and lose the case, they could be ordered to pay attorneys’ fees and penalties.

“It’s a real problem that I wish the Legislature would address,” George said.

Unusual tactics and public interest

In court filings, the news organizations argued that the defense was incorrectly interpreting state public records laws.

Under the Public Records Act, some records may be withheld or redacted to protect crime victims and witnesses. Attorneys for the organizations said Segura has already been identified and hasn’t proved that disclosing the records would endanger him.

Attorneys for the news organizations also argued the witness-safety exemption has never been applied to a criminal defendant. If Segura was deemed a “witness,” they wrote in legal briefs, every criminal defendant could stifle the release of records.

The defense’s argument that releasing the records would hamper Segura’s chances for a fair trial also didn’t hold water, said Eric Stahl of the Seattle law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, who represented the news organizations.

“News coverage itself is not presumptively prejudicial,” Stahl said Thursday. He pointed out much larger cases, such as that of convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, whose crimes were covered internationally prior to trial.

“The judge in that case managed to seat a jury,” Stahl said.

Townsend, the Vancouver defense attorney also seeking the records, said she has a private interest in the documents but declined to elaborate. Broadly, however, she said the records should be public.

“I think the public is entitled to transparency no matter how shocking, sad or unfortunate the situation is,” Townsend said in an interview Wednesday. “The public gets to scrutinize the actions of public officials.”

Ultimately, Judge Nancy Retsinas denied the defense’s motion because ruling on public records should be done in civil court — not a criminal court, Retsinas said.

“This court can’t make a ruling as to the exemption or injunction (to withhold records),” Retsinas said in Thursday’s court hearing.

Retsinas also told Segura’s defense attorneys that she would struggle to see the argument for withholding records by calling Segura a witness.

When asked after the hearing if Segura’s defense would try to file a civil injunction on the records, Dunkerly said he didn’t know.

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