Nearly three years after the fatal shooting of Charleena Lyles by two Seattle police officers set off a wave of protests, a much-anticipated, much-altered and much-delayed inquest to examine what happened has hit a legal iceberg.
And if that wasn’t enough, efforts to break though the ice and determine whether the fact-finding proceeding can get underway have been dashed, for now, by the novel coronavirus. A court hearing that was set for March 30 to untangle last-minute issues has been postponed until July 17 while King County Superior Court operates on a reduced schedule.
Even after that hearing, the possibility of appeals to higher courts could leave inquests languishing for years to come. Lining up behind the Lyles case, more than 20 other inquests have yet to be scheduled. Meanwhile, the cases grow more stale, challenging the memories of witnesses.
The current legal dispute arose because city attorneys representing the Seattle Police Department have challenged sweeping new inquest rules ordered by King County Executive Dow Constantine.
Those rules seek to determine the root causes behind the use of deadly force by law enforcement, rather than focusing on the subjective perceptions of officers and their justification for using deadly force.
But the city argues in court papers that the new rules are unfair to officers, because, among other things, they include restrictions that bar officers from testifying about their state of mind when they use deadly force.
Under the old inquest system, officers often testified that they believed they faced mortal danger, and jurors accepted their perceptions.
Although others have joined in objecting to the changes, including the cities of Federal Way, Kent and Auburn and the King County Sheriff’s Office, Seattle’s participation in the court fight has drawn strong criticism.
“The city of Seattle’s decision to undermine King County’s inquest reforms is a profound betrayal,” said Corey Guilmette, an attorney for family members of Charleena Lyles.
A city spokesman said it was Constantine who triggered the court filing with a sudden change in the rules.
Lyles, a 30-year-old Black mother of four, was shot seven times by two white officers on June 18, 2017, after she called 911 to report a burglary at her northeast Seattle apartment.
Police said Lyles suddenly threatened officers Steven McNew and Jason Anderson with one or two knives before they opened fire. No evidence of a burglary was found, suggesting to some she laid a trap for the officers.
Lyles had struggled with mental-health issues, according to her family and court records, and the shooting came at a time when her life appeared to be spinning out of control.
The shooting unleashed public protests, with many seeing it as another example of unnecessary deadly force being used by police against people of color. Lyles’ family members have said they believe race was a factor.
A Seattle Police Department review board found the shooting to be reasonable, necessary and proportional, and consistent with department policy and training.
The Lyles inquest is one of 27 that are either pending or likely to be held. The last inquest hearing was on Dec. 11, 2017, in which a jury, according to a story in the Kent Reporter, found that a Kent police officer believed a man he fatally shot posed a threat to him.
Constantine suspended all inquests in December 2017 out of concern that the process gave the appearance of clearing law-enforcement officers of wrongdoing when the proceeding was intended to be a fact-finding hearing.
After a two-year overhaul, inquests were to resume in the past several months.
But the legal snag emerged in response to a ruling by Inquest Administrator Michael Spearman, whose position is no longer called judge under new provisions aimed at making inquests less like trials. He ruled that the officers in the Lyles case did not have to testify under the new rules, but still could be represented by legal counsel.
Constantine then amended the rules to state that the officers’ attorneys could only appear on their behalf if the officers testified. His order means the attorneys could not act as the officers’ surrogate, essentially telling the inquest jury the officers’ view without their testimony. That prompted the city of Seattle and others to challenge the new rules.
“During the inquest proceedings, we were doing our best to interpret a very vague Executive Order with uncertain results,” said Dan Nolte, spokesman for the Seattle City Attorney’s Office. “The last-minute amendment was what finally made the process untenable.”
In court papers, city attorneys contend that Constantine’s order improperly “broadened the ultimate intent of the inquest” beyond the longstanding purpose to simply inquire into the cause of death.
“The Executive seeks to place himself in the position of the sovereign,” they say.
Constantine, in an interview with The Seattle Times, disputed the city’s claim, saying his goal has been to carry out an open process, focused on whether officers followed policy in using deadly force and on preventing future loss of life.
“We’re anxious to move forward with a fair and transparent process that treats everyone justly,” Constantine said.
André Taylor, whose brother Che Taylor was shot and killed by Seattle police in 2016, participated in talks that led to the new rules. He said relatives of people killed by police agreed not to subpoena officers to testify, if law enforcement went along with the restrictions regarding officers’ attorneys acting as surrogates and also allowed their superiors to describe policies and training.
Taylor said it was “disingenuous” to now be complaining about the changes in the inquest process.
Guilmette, the Lyles’ family attorney, said Seattle’s position is “directly contrary” to the position of the Seattle Community Police Commission, a citizen advisory body that has long supported inquest reforms.
Families worked in good faith with law-enforcement leaders for nearly a year, he said, and were assured their interests were highly valued. Now, the city is treating “those good faith efforts with contempt,” he said.
“City officials didn’t even bother to provide courtesy notice before moving to roll back all the reforms families had worked so hard to put in place,” Guilmette said.
Seattle city attorneys, in their filing, are asking the court to throw out Constantine’s executive order.
In addition, the filing requests that the inquest jury be allowed to evaluate the officer’s state of mind but not, as permitted by the new rules, delve into the officer’s disciplinary history. It also argues that other provisions should be barred, including one compelling a supervisor or chief to discuss training and policy, and asks the court to prohibit video livestreaming of the inquest.
When the court does hear arguments, it will decide whether to grant any or all of the nine requests made by the city.
While an inquest of some kind is now required, there ultimately could be a move to eliminate the process in light of a new statewide law requiring independent investigations when police use deadly force.
Constantine said he wants to move forward as quickly as possible but acknowledged, “None of this is simple.”