A statewide panel of prosecutors tasked with reviewing the fatal shooting of Vancouver police Officer Donald Sahota by a Clark County sheriff’s deputy was unable to reach consensus on the “reasonableness” of the deputy’s use of force.
Now, it is up to the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office to decide whether Deputy Jonathan Feller should face criminal charges and, if so, what they should be.
“This was an advisory opinion from five outside prosecutors. Now that our office has received this opinion, we will be meeting internally to discuss the opinion and render our own opinion within one to two weeks,” Clark County Prosecutor Tony Golik said in a phone interview.
The 11-page opinion was publicly released Wednesday; it was authored by the Lewis County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. Golik requested the panel review last year through the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, which comprised of the elected prosecutors from Lewis, Pend Oreille, Island, Garfield and Clallam counties.
The Clark County Sheriff’s Office said Wednesday it had received a copy of the review.
“This was a tragic event and our thoughts and support remain with the friends and family of Officer Donald Sahota and the Vancouver Police Department family,” the agency said in a news release. “We continue to provide support to Deputy Feller though this review process.”
Feller returned to administrative duty in July.
Sahota, 52, was mistakenly shot and killed Jan. 29 at his home near Battle Ground during a manhunt for an armed robbery suspect. Deputies were pursuing Julio Segura, 21, of Yakima, who fled from his immobilized car to Sahota’s house, according to investigators.
Sahota, who was off duty, struggled with Segura in his driveway and was stabbed three times. Sahota was chasing Segura toward his house when Feller shot him. The investigation found Feller fired four shots within four seconds of arriving at Sahota’s home.
Segura is facing murder and attempted murder charges, plus other charges, in Clark County Superior Court. His trial is set for later this year.
The outside prosecutors’ panel concluded Feller’s use of deadly force may have been warranted against Segura, based on his alleged conduct, though there was no consensus there either.
“While it seems clear Deputy Feller intended to use deadly force against the actual suspect, that is not what happened. As a result, Officer Sahota is dead,” the panel wrote.
In considering the totality of the circumstances, the panel said some members believed Feller should have taken the time to verify his intended target before firing his weapon. Others concluded it was reasonable for Feller to believe lethal force was immediately necessary, and the man at Sahota’s door was the robbery suspect, not Sahota.
The panel acknowledged the events leading up to the shooting were “at best, chaotic.”
Feller knew two people, the homeowner and presumably the robbery suspect, were in a struggle; a weapon had fallen to the ground; and police radio traffic indicated “he just picked it up.” Feller believed the intruder picked up the firearm and was chasing the homeowner, according to the review.
At least two other officers on scene also believed the man at Sahota’s front door was the robbery suspect, the review states.
“The WAPA panel reviewing this case was unable to reach consensus on whether, had his mistaken belief been correct, Feller would have been justified in shooting Segura at the front door,” the opinion reads.
The panel reasoned Sahota would have been safely inside his home, so there would have been no imminent threat. Feller then could have “worked more deliberately” to take Segura into custody. Still, under the “good faith” standard, there is evidence to support Feller’s belief that an armed Segura entering the home would have posed an imminent threat.
The Lower Columbia Major Crimes Team investigated the shooting. The panel said it appears all of the guidelines for an independent investigation were met.