An inquest jury on Monday was shown newly disclosed video of Seattle police Officer Ian Birk pointing his semi-automatic pistol at First...
An inquest jury on Monday was shown newly disclosed video of Seattle police Officer Ian Birk pointing his semi-automatic pistol at First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams only moments after Birk had fired four fatal shots that left Williams sprawled on the ground.
The video was captured by the dashboard camera of the first patrol car to respond to the Aug. 30 shooting, jurors were told during the first day of the fact-finding hearing into Williams’ death. Birk is shown standing about nine feet from the prone man as additional officers respond to the scene, form a line and move toward Williams.
Williams’ family and other spectators packed the courtroom throughout the day, which began with the laborious process of selecting the eight-member jury and closed with the dramatic airing of the graphic video.
Jurors also were shown previously released video and audio, captured on a camera in Birk’s patrol car, of his short confrontation with Williams at the intersection of Boren Avenue and Howell Street.
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Scores of protesters, outraged at what they consider an unjustified shooting, demonstrated outside the King County Courthouse, some in the morning before the inquest began, during the noon hour and at the conclusion of Monday’s testimony.
Many were Native Americans, with some protesters wearing headbands that read “4 seconds to death,” a reference to the approximate amount of time between when Birk first ordered Williams to drop a knife to the moment he began firing. Williams was a member of Nuu-Chah-Nulth First Nations in British Columbia.
Seeing the videos was particularly hard, said observers who watched the inquest from an overflow courtroom.
“There were a lot of sighs and a lot of tears,” said Pat John, of the Ahousaht First Nations and a resident of Port Angeles.
Fern Renville, a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate of South Dakota and another supporter of the family, said she was shocked by what she saw in the video of the backup officers arriving to assist Birk. “Instead of offering medical aid, they handcuffed him,” she said of Williams.
Security at the courthouse was extremely tight, with a phalanx of guards surrounding Birk throughout the day and an added metal detector on the floor where the hearing is being held.
Birk sat in court with his grim-faced wife, Camille, while the first witness, Seattle police Detective Jeffery Mudd, testified in painstaking detail about the shooting.
It’s unknown whether Birk will testify or invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. If he does testify, it could occur Tuesday.
Birk, 27, who joined the Police Department in July 2008, previously has said he feared for his life when Williams, a 50-year-old street inebriate, didn’t respond to his commands to drop a small knife he was holding.
Birk had gotten out his patrol car after seeing Williams cross the street carrying the knife with a 3-inch blade and a piece of wood.
Williams died in a burst of gunfire witnessed by pedestrians and people in cars during the late-afternoon rush hour.
Some witnesses told police that Williams did not act in a threatening manner and are expected to testify at the inquest. Their recollections will be crucial because the video camera in Birk’s patrol car only captured him approaching Williams, not the shooting.
Mudd, the lead investigator, will resume his testimony Tuesday morning.
At the end of the inquest, jurors will answer a series of questions, including some likely to touch on whether Williams posed a threat to Birk. A final list of questions won’t be prepared until the jury hears all the evidence.
The jury’s answers, which do not have to be unanimous, could indicate whether they believe Birk was justified. But the jury will not be asked to reach a criminal or civil legal finding.
Its answers will be considered by the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office in determining whether a criminal charge against Birk is warranted.
Three of John T. Williams’ sisters traveled by bus Sunday from Vancouver, B.C., to attend the inquest. Nancy and Linda Williams brought their carving tools with them, intending to work throughout the week. All of the Williams family are carvers since childhood, and they carve both for a living and because, as Nancy puts it, “it’s who we are.”
About 75 supporters of the family rallied in a small park south of the courthouse after the day’s proceedings. The gathering was solemn, with songs, prayer and drumming offered as medicine at the end of what they described as a long, difficult day.
Sandwiches were passed around, and there was a mood of digging in for a long week.
At the evening rally, John, the Ahousaht First Nations member, presented Rick Williams, one of John T. Williams’ brothers, a carved copper eagle feather as a gift for the family. He presented a second feather to a city employee, intended for Seattle Police Chief John Diaz.
“We need to walk the path together, to have no animosity,” John said. “I know there is a lot of anger and hurt, but if we walk together in this, it will get solved.”
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this story.
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