By Eric M. Johnson
SEATTLE (Reuters) - Washington state Governor Jay Inslee has temporarily denied a request by a Latino advocacy group to remove a local prosecutor from a probe into the controversial death of a Mexican orchard worker shot dead by police after pelting them with rocks.
Antonio Zambrano-Montes, a 35-year-old undocumented immigrant, was shot dead by three Pasco police officers last month in a confrontation captured on video that sparked weeks of protests.
His death on Feb. 10 triggered demonstrations in a Latino-majority farming community about 200 miles (320 km) southeast of Seattle. Protesters have likened the incident to recent police slayings of unarmed black men in Missouri and New York.
Inslee declined a request by advocacy group Consejo Latino to remove Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant from the case, saying prosecutors were obligated to fully investigate and prosecute crimes absent "very specific, tangible, and compelling reasons."
"I am not confident that those reasons have been established at this point in the ongoing investigation," Inslee wrote to the group on Tuesday.
But Inslee added that he remained "deeply troubled" by Zambrano-Montes' death and was open to considering the request at a later time "should the appropriate facts and circumstances arise." He did not go into specifics.
The request, presented in a letter to Inslee's office on March 16, follows calls from local residents and activists who have questioned the objectivity of the local investigation and demanded an independent federal probe.
Sant has told Reuters he has no plans to step aside and would review the incident report being compiled by a local investigative unit and also weigh recommendations from a coroner's inquest into the shooting before deciding whether to pursue any charges against the officers.
Zambrano-Montes, an unemployed farmworker, spoke little English and wrestled with drug use and personal tragedy, including a house fire that left him homeless, in the months before the incident.
Police have said officers shot Zambrano-Montes after he pelted them with rocks, ignored commands to surrender, and after a stun gun failed to subdue him.
The killing marked the fourth fatal police shooting in seven months in a community of 68,000 residents that is more than half Hispanic and where the police force is disproportionately white.
"While the governor's decision is a little disappointing, we can take satisfaction in his assurances that he wants to ensure there is a thorough and objective investigation," Consejo Latino Chairman Felix Vargas said.
(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Eric Beech)