The selection of a new representative could mean a wrongful-death lawsuit filed against the city of Seattle and the two police officers who killed Charleena Lyles will be withdrawn and refiled.
The father of Charleena Lyles, an African-American mother of four who was fatally shot by Seattle police in June, has been declared ineligible to serve as the personal representative of his daughter’s estate because of a felony drug conviction in California almost 30 years ago.
Charles Lyles’ removal from his daughter’s probate case calls into question whether a wrongful-death lawsuit filed in September will proceed or be withdrawn by the estate’s new representative, Eric Watness, a retired court commissioner who works for a local mediation and arbitration service.
Watness was selected after a prickly hearing Wednesday before King County Superior Court Commissioner Carlos Velategui, who had nine attorneys crowded around his bench while seated nearby were two of three guardians appointed to represent the interests of Charleena Lyles’ four children, ages 1, 4, 11 and 12.
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Charleena Lyles, 30, was fatally shot by two white Seattle officers June 18 in her apartment after she reported a burglary and, according to the officers, suddenly attacked them with one or two knives. Her family has said they believe that race was a factor in her shooting.
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Legal filings in the probate case have exposed the rift between Charles Lyles, who lives in California, and his daughter’s Seattle-area relatives, as well as the disagreement between attorneys on how best to get answers about her death.
Charles Lyles opted to file a wrongful-death lawsuit in September and also said he wouldn’t participate in the county’s inquest into the shooting. Charleena Lyles’ other family members agreed to participate in the inquest, in which a jury will determine the significant factual issues in the case while not weighing criminal or civil liability.
There is no money in Charleena Lyles’ estate, which exists solely to receive potential funds from a wrongful-death lawsuit, money that would be used to pay legal fees before the balance was set aside for her children, the estate’s only heirs.
Karen Koehler, who with her law partners filed the wrongful-death suit against the city of Seattle and police officers Jason Anderson and Steven McNew on Charles Lyles’ behalf, maintained Wednesday that her firm represents the Lyles estate, even though Charles Lyles is no longer a party in the lawsuit. At the same time, she argued that Deborah Phillips, an attorney at Perkins Coie who is representing Lyles’ two half-sisters, Monika Williams and Tiffany Rogers, had no standing in the probate case at all.
She put forth her own candidates for personal representative: Former state Supreme Court Justice Faith Ireland and attorney Emily Hansen.
Koehler also claimed in court that the inquest into the shooting could be stayed while the lawsuit plays out. But other attorneys said the inquest is moving ahead, with a preliminary hearing scheduled for Nov. 13.
“I hate to see the lawsuit jeopardized,” Koehler told Velategui.
Phillips countered that Koehler was trying to silence Phillips’ clients and should have known Charles Lyles was ineligible to serve as personal representative. Rogers, a sister, was eligible and qualified to serve as personal representative, noted Phillips, who also named Watness and three other people as possible candidates to replace Charles Lyles.
State law dictates the order of relationship that must be followed for someone to become a personal representative: Spouse or domestic partner, followed by a child, parent, sibling, grandchild and last, niece or nephew. No one who has been convicted of a felony or a crime of moral turpitude can serve as a personal representative. The court can also appoint a “suitable person” to administer an estate.
After Velategui ordered the parties to confer over the lunch break to see if they could agree on either Ireland or Watness, they selected Watness.
In an interview, Koehler said Charles Lyles thought his 1990 conviction in California for selling crack was a misdemeanor, not a felony, and a preliminary background check run by her office did not turn up the felony. She also said he decided not to participate in the inquest because she claims it is a flawed process that’s biased in favor of police officers.
Watness, she said, will “start from scratch” and decide whether to scrap the lawsuit, proceed with litigation, or withdraw the suit and refile it at a later time.
Corey Guilmette, the attorney representing Charleena Lyles’ sisters, brother and cousins in the inquest, said his clients were never consulted or told Charles Lyles was filing a wrongful-death suit. After he learned of the suit from the media, Guilmette ran his own background check and discovered Charles Lyles had been convicted of a felony and had failed to pay child support to his daughter’s mother, who died years ago.
Guilmette said the inquest allows attorneys to test different legal theories and provides family members with better information to decide whether they think they can prevail in a wrongful-death suit.
There’s no hurry to file suit “and at best we’re talking about speculative returns on a lawsuit,” Guilmette said.
All four of Charleena Lyles’ children are wards of the state. The two eldest, who share the same father, have been placed in the temporary care of their paternal grandmother, Francis Butts, while the two youngest, who have a different father, are living with Rogers.
Williams, Charleena Lyles’ older sister, said she felt Charles Lyles moved too quickly to file a lawsuit and did so without communicating with other family members. They also were contemplating a civil suit but wanted to deal with other legal matters first, including getting through the inquest, which hasn’t been scheduled, Williams said.
“Even still, I want him to be involved and know everything that’s going on,” she said of Charles Lyles.
Her sister’s children “are doing great” and see each other on weekends, Williams said.