“This process has been horrific in every way.”
That’s how Katrina Johnson described the inquest into the 2017 police killing of her cousin, Charleena Lyles, a 30-year-old, pregnant mother of four.
I spoke with Johnson on Thursday, the day after a six-member inquest jury found police officers justified in Lyles’ killing. The Lyles inquest was part of a new process that was finally implemented in 2022.
At inquests, jurors look into the facts surrounding police killings. Their findings may be used to determine whether officers are charged.
The new inquest process came after years of legal challenges over changes that were intended to give victims’ families more of a voice, including giving jurors an opportunity to determine if the person was killed by “criminal means” and ensure families have access to a lawyer.
But despite those changes, both the Lyles inquest and the Damarius Butts inquest — the first two under the new system — resulted in the same outcome we have seen for over the past 50 years: a finding that the officers were justified.
“I’m pretty numb right now,” Johnson said. She said the weeks of inquest proceedings were “grueling.”
“I feel almost like I’m even more traumatized by this whole inquest process than the day they actually killed her,” she said.
It wasn’t just the gut-wrenching testimony about the details of the killing. (One of the officers described how Lyles’ infant crawled on top of her body, “screaming and crying”; her older son told the officer, “You shot my mom.”) It was also the way in which the inquest was conducted, Johnson said.
As the Lyles family attorney Karen Koehler said in a statement after the decision, “The process focused only on the officers’ states of mind. Not on Ms. Lyles. Despite requests for a fuller picture to be presented — including a forensic expert on the topic of her mental health — the scope was strictly narrowed.”
Lyles’ mental health was deemed largely “irrelevant,” Koehler said.
Lyles was killed after calling the police to report a burglary in her apartment. She had a history of mental illness and pulled a paring knife on the officers who came to investigate, the inquest determined, and they ultimately shot her seven times, killing her.
The officers argued they had no alternative to killing Lyles — even though she weighed just 110 pounds and had a 4-inch knife. They argued the door to the apartment was closed, preventing their exit, yet surveillance video played during the inquest showed one of the officers backing out of the door as shots were heard.
When I have written about this case before, the No. 1 response I get has been, “But she had a knife! What other choice did they have?” Yet unlike Seattle, where 14% of police shootings involve a person with a knife, other places manage to de-escalate and arrest people with knives without shooting or killing them.
As the Chicago Tribune reported in a 2017 opinion piece, in England and Wales — where, they noted, “sharp cutting instruments are no less available to criminals than they are here” — there were just three fatal shootings of any kind by police between 2011 and 2015. But in the U.S.,“People armed with nothing but knives get killed by cops all the time in the United States — as many as 165 times per year, or more than three per week,” they wrote.
Further, a Washington Post analysis in 2015 showed 25% of people shot by police over a six-month period had severe mental health issues.
In addition to what Johnson called the “one-sided” inquest testimony, the family had to suffer a lack of COVID-19 protocols that left two lawyers and two jurors testing positive for the coronavirus and led to the inquest hearing being closed to the public, Johnson said. Only a very limited number of family members were able to support each other in the hearing room.
Adding to the trauma: an incident where the Seattle police sent a SWAT team to the hearing after one of the officers reported insults directed toward him by the family, Johnson said.
“Those are the types of things that no family should have to go through while already having to deal with their loved one being killed,” she said.
Johnson said her family has not given up, though she is discouraged that the changes made to the inquest process haven’t done more to help families of police shooting victims.
“I don’t think that you ever heal from this, you just learn to live with what is. My cousin’s children, they will be forever scarred,” she said. “They will never be OK, they will never be the same. They don’t have a mother anymore.”