Thurston County Prosecutor releases letter on investigation into accused protest shooting suspect

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After The Thurston County Prosecutor’s Office opted not to immediately file charges against a 25-year-old Bellingham man accused of shooting a protestor on the state capital campus, myriad news outlets published stories about the case.  See The JOLT's story from Monday.

Yesterday Thurston County Prosecutor Jon Tunheim released a public letter, explaining the reasoning behind the decision.

Forest Machala was arrested on Dec. 12. On Dec. 14, a Thurston County Superior Court judge decided there was probable cause to charge Machala with first-degree assault while armed with a deadly weapon, and imposed $50,000 bail. Machala posted bail and was promptly released. In most instances, prosecutor’s would file charges against a suspect shortly after a judge determines there is probable cause.

Thurston County prosecutors, however, decided to wait, saying the Washington State Patrol was still investigating the incident.

Tunheim’s letter to the public, in its entirety, says the following:

In December, our community experienced two separate incidents where groups of opposing political ideology gathered and a person was shot. 

The first occurred on December 5th in the downtown area of Olympia. The Olympia Police Department investigated the incident which led to the arrest of one suspect. After reviewing the evidence gathered during that investigation, we charged the suspect with one count of Assault in the First Degree while armed with a firearm. 

The second incident occurred on December 12th, when during a confrontation between two groups a person was struck by a bullet in the abdomen.  After some preliminary investigation, the Washington State Patrol (WSP) arrested a man for the shooting. The investigating agency is the WSP because the crime occurred on or near the Capitol Campus.  At a preliminary hearing, a judge determined that probable cause existed to justify the arrest, and bail was set at $50,000. That bail was subsequently posted, and the suspect was released. 

Following the preliminary appearance, this office reviewed the available evidence and determined that we did not yet have sufficient evidence to proceed with a charge. While law enforcement is empowered to make an arrest when there is “probable cause” to believe the person committed a crime, prosecutorial standards are much different. To have “probable cause,” a law enforcement officer need only have a reasonable belief that the suspect has committed a crime. 

One of the fundamental principals in our criminal justice system is the presumption of innocence and a requirement that the prosecution prove a charge beyond a reasonable doubt to obtain a conviction. Washington State prosecution standards allow prosecutors to file a charge when “sufficient admissible evidence exists, which, when considered with the most plausible, reasonably foreseeable defense that could be raised under the evidence, would justify conviction by a reasonable and objective fact finder.”  Thus, in our review of any criminal case, we determine sufficiency of the evidence to prove the charge beyond a reasonable doubt, a much higher standard than probable cause.  We do this without consideration of the political affiliation or ideology of the defendant or victim. 

After reviewing evidence submitted by WSP to support charges in the December 12th shooting, we decided to delay our charging decision until the investigation was complete, and all available evidence could be reviewed under the standard described above. Our decision not to prosecute at this time is not final, and we are working closely with WSP to provide any legal support they need to complete their investigation. 

Several people have raised questions about the specific evidence in this case. As a matter of policy, this office will not comment on the facts of an ongoing investigation, so as to not taint or compromise the integrity of any evidence which may be obtained.  For instance, the testimony of witnesses who come forward may be influenced by things they read or heard in the media or online.  Sometimes, like in this case, that puts us in the difficult position of not being able to talk more specifically about our decision. However, I anticipate being able to give further explanation once the investigation is complete and we have made our final decision. 

I want to again stress that our decision not to file charges at this time is not final.  In the meantime, I ask everyone in the community to remain patient while the WSP completes their investigation, and we  properly review all of the evidence before making a final charging decision. 

Thank you, 

Jon Tunheim, Prosecuting Attorney

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