Justice for Jack Yantis: Don't Leave the Investigation to the "Professionals"

The first rule of bureaucratic crisis management is: “Find someone else to blame.” This is true even in agencies as small as the Adams County Sheriff’s Office.

Sheriff Ryan Zollman would have an insuperable conflict of interest were he to conduct the official inquiry into the November 1st killing of Jack Yantis. He could have avoided that conflict by firing the deputies, charging them as private citizens, and then turning the evidence over to a special prosecutor.

This would have provoked trouble with the Fraternal Order of Police and precipitated a grievance with the Idaho State Industrial Commission, but it would also have demonstrated to Zollman’s constituents that the killing was being investigated as a criminal homicide, rather than a suspected “assault on law enforcement.”

The inquiry was handed over to the Idaho State Police, an agency that reliably botches investigations of this kind – whether they deal with a previous officer-involved homicides, or pervasive corruption within Idaho’s prison system.Attorney General Lawrence Wasden has now invited the FBI to conduct its own investigation.

“We want to be deliberate and thorough,” insists Wendy Olson, the U.S. Attorney for Idaho. “ISP will be thorough, the FBI will be thorough.” In the meantime, “people need to be patient” as official procedures are followed.

Thoroughness is not the summum bonum in an investigation of this kind: Anybody engaged in a cover-up is certainly motivated to be thorough. Richard Nixon expected his “plumbers” to be thorough in their efforts to prevent transparency and accountability.

Furthermore, the objective in staging multiple investigations is not thoroughness, but diffusion of responsibility. There is a vanishingly small possibility that the still-unnamed and still-publicly compensated killers could be put on trial for criminal homicide, or face federal civil rights charges in the event no state charges are filed. On previous performance it’s more likely that the two “independent” investigations, which will be sharing the same evidence, will both rule the killing “justified.” Should that happen, Yantis’s family and friends will receive the familiar condescending lecture about the need to “respect the process.” In less elevated language this means, essentially, “Sucks to be you.”

The officials presiding over the “independent” inquiries operate on a sliding scale of zealousness. Lawrence Wasden displayed great zeal in pursuing felony charges against Carol Asher, a retired schoolteacher who frustrated a prosecutor by acting as a conscientious juror.

In her ardor for what she pretended was justice, Wendy Olson set aside the findings of a local investigation and threatened to send Bonners Ferry resident Jeremy Hill to federal prison for the supposed crime of shooting a grizzly bear that threatened his family. She eventually extorted $1,000 from Hill to end her vindictive and unwarranted prosecution.

Neither of those “offenses” involved actual crimes of violence against human beings. But neither of those “suspects” was swaddled in the habiliments of the state’s punitive priesthood, or invested with “qualified immunity.” And besides, Jack Yantis was “no stranger to the police,” as the Washington Post archly observed, taking note of an inconsequential record that included a traffic infraction, two DUIs and a charge of “resisting and obstructing,” the last of which should have earned him a commendation, rather than a citation.

The Post and other state-centric media outlets continue to insinuate that Yantis was in some sense responsible for his own death. This is true only to the extent that if Yantis hadn’t cooperated with a request to help the over-matched deputies deal with the wounded bull, which underscores the wisdom of avoiding any contact whatsoever with the state’s privileged purveyors of sanctified violence.

Media coverage of the Yantis killing, predictably, is freighted with intimations of potential violence against Sheriff Zollman and other officials from the rural “anti-government extremists” who populate Adams County. Sheriff Zollman, who seems like an earnest and decent man, reports that his family has received death threats, and he has refused to disclose the names of the deputies who killed Yantis in order to spare them similar treatment. This wouldn’t be a problem if the deputies had been charged with a criminal offense and taken into custody – or even released on bail once charges had been filed. Threats of the kind Zollman allegedly received are precipitated by frustration over the privileged status of law enforcement officers implicated in wrongful deaths or other acts of criminal violence.

Any evidence that Yantis assaulted or threatened the deputies would have been provided to the public within hours of the incident. If two Adams County citizens had shot and killed a sheriff’s deputy, they would have been incarcerated without bail, and their names would be known.

Despite Sheriff Zollman’s reticence, Adams County residents have identified two of his deputies as the shooters. If those men (whose names have been made known to me) are not the would-be suspects, the sheriff is doing them no favors by withholding the names of the deputies who killed Yantis. In either case, the pretense of secrecy cannot continue much longer in the age of social media.

Whenever law enforcement agencies investigate each other, the priority is to uphold “order” and vindicate “authority,” rather than to impose accountability for official misconduct. Stipulating that the “official” authority claimed by any government functionary is entirely fictitious, Sheriff Zollman could have exercised moral authority in the service of ordered liberty by filing charges against the deputies and requiring them to undergo the same process that would be endured by similarly situated defendants who were not part of the state’s enforcement caste.

Since Zollman has abdicated his responsibilities, the task of carrying out a truly independent investigation should be carried out by a citizens’ grand jury. That panel would act as a fact-finding body, taking testimony from witnesses and, if suitable evidence is found, delivering a “presentment” against the deputies to the county prosecutor.

The State of Idaho’s official judicial guidelines describe a Grand Jury as “a panel of citizens called together to hear evidence and determine if criminal charges should be initiated.” There is no requirement that the panel be “called together” by the sheriff, prosecutor, or the local courts.

Were a citizens’ grand jury to be assembled in Adams County, the air will be clotted with frantic warnings about “vigilante justice,” the Southern Poverty Law Center will denounce the development as a manifestation of the much-dreaded and little-defined “sovereign citizen movement,” and sanctimonious chin-pullers will insist that matters of this kind are best handled by “professionals.” This will make sense only to people completely ignorant of the original purpose of the grand jury.

As legal scholar Roger Roots points out, the “grand jury in its primal, plenary sense … was a group of men who stood as a check on government, often in direct opposition to the desires of those in power.” Far from being an instrument of the political elite, “American grand juries initiated prosecutions against corrupt agents of the government, often in response to complaints from individuals.”

When the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure were adopted in 1946, the grand jury – which had always been a non-government entity – became the “total captive of the prosecutor,” in the words of former federal Judge William J. Campbell.The Advisory Committee on the Rules of Criminal Procedure, significantly, was an appointed body without legislative authority, popular mandate, or accountability: It was assembled by the FDR regime out of people representing the prosecutorial class. The result was a “grand jury” procedure that effectively ended the public’s role in the administration of justice. By organizing an independent grand jury to investigate the Yantis killing, Adams County citizens would be acting to restore the rule of law, rather than to subvert it.

Like all “official” investigations of its kind, the inquiry into the killing of Jack Yantis is a liturgy intended to reinforce the “legitimacy” of the agency that employed the killers. This is why the pursuit of actual justice is a task that cannot be entrusted to the “professionals.”