A trial court review released Monday found no fault by the judges who handled Jorge Zambrano’s criminal cases and let him remain free in the months before he killed Auburn police Officer Ronald Tarentino Jr., but it called for a slate of reforms aimed at better identifying potentially violent offenders.
In a 34-page report, District Court Chief Justice Paul Dawley concluded that the judicial decisions in Zambrano’s five pending criminal cases were lawful and that a probation officer had “diligently monitored” Zambrano in April and May.
Zambrano was on probation when he shot and killed Tarentino during a traffic stop May 22. He had been placed on probation after being charged with assaulting a police officer, along with several other alleged crimes.
Dawley, who conducted the review at the request of Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey, recommended a number of systemic changes. Among others, the courts should adopt protocols to help identify “high risk” individuals, provide judges more information before they decide cases, and push probation officers to seek arrest warrants when people fail to comply with court-ordered conditions.
“Notwithstanding the lawful exercise of discretion in these cases, in the face of these tragic circumstances, a further examination of existing procedures, court rules, and laws is warranted and required,” he wrote.
The trial court said Monday officials will work to adopt the recommendations.
Critics have said Zambrano, who was killed in a shootout with police hours after shooting Tarentino, should have been in jail for repeatedly assaulting police officers and violating his probation by using cocaine. This year alone, he had been arrested four times.
David Capeless, district attorney in Berkshire County and president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys’ Association, said the court system’s review failed to hold judges accountable.
“They made a mistake,” Capeless said in an interview. “They’re trying to suggest that everything is fine. Call it for what it is!”
In a statement, Capeless said judges are given “great authority and discretion to make decisions, large and small, every day in our courts and we certainly expect more than that they won’t break the law or violate the rules — we expect that they will decide wisely, based upon what is right, fair and just.
“When they fail to do that, it should be called what it is: a bad decision or, at best, a mistake,” he added. “Blaming their failures on a lack of rules or procedures is dismaying.”
But Auburn police Detective Sergeant Scott Mills praised the recommendations as “an excellent step forward.”
“I think it’s great they’re reviewing this and putting up safeguards,” he said. “I’m encouraged to see they’re taking these steps this quickly.”
While some observers have pointed to a February incident in which Zambrano allegedly assaulted his girlfriend and threatened several police officers as deserving of jail time, Mills said he didn’t believe that anyone other than Zambrano was to blame for the Auburn shooting.
‘They made a mistake. They’re trying to suggest that everything is fine. Call it for what it is!’David Capeless, Massachusetts District Attorneys’ Association president, criticizing court review into how Jorge Zambrano cases were handled
“I don’t think anyone did anything wrong,” he said. “Nothing was going to change this event.”
Robert Harnais, president of the Massachusetts Bar Association, said it was important that the judiciary had reviewed what might have gone wrong.
“We serve the public and people rely on the system ... when something like this happens it should be expected that we look at the system to see if a failure occurred and where and address it,” he said. “I’m glad the court didn’t turn a blind eye.”
Leonard Kesten, a lawyer who regularly represents police officers, praised the court for conducting a “reasoned, comprehensive review.”
“You can’t have a knee-jerk reaction and say ‘Fire such and such.’ It’s so hard to predict when someone is going to do something,” he said.
Through a spokesman, Worcester District Attorney Joseph Early Jr. declined to comment on the trial court’s review.
Carey, in a statement, said the court system would “develop and implement the recommendations with care and diligence.”
Zambrano was released from prison in November 2013 after serving seven years for cocaine trafficking, and was he arrested in January on charges of assaulting a police officer. According to new details of the incident released in Monday’s report, Zambrano threatened officers when they placed him in handcuffs.
“Wait till I get out. I’m going to find you,” he said, according to a police report.
Zambrano was released on bail, and the following month he was arrested again on charges of assaulting his girlfriend. During his arrest, Zambrano struggled so fiercely it took four officers to get him into a cruiser.
District Court Judge Andrew Mandell rejected a request by prosecutors to revoke Zambrano’s bail and released him on $500. In March, Mandell, adopting a joint recommendation by prosecutors and Zambrano’s lawyer, placed Zambrano on probation, and ordered him to undergo a mental health evaluation and treatment.
According to the report, Commissioner of Probation Edward Dolan found that the probation officer assigned to Zambrano met all probation standards, including frequency of contacts and taking corrective action to address compliance issues.
Yet probation records released in the report revealed that Zambrano told his probation officer in April he “would rather do jail time than abide by conditions.”
He was late for meetings and continued to use cocaine and alcohol. When asked how he felt about getting some help or participating in programs, he responded, “not open,” according to the records.
On May 18, just four days before he killed Tarentino, Zambrano told his probation officer he was “struggling to keep doing the right thing.”John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Shelley Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph. Jan Ransom can be reached email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Jan_Ransom.