For Stephanie Butts, the four years since her son Damarius was shot and killed by Seattle police have been filled with questions about the last minutes of his life.
The answers, she hopes, will be found when King County conducts a coroner’s inquest. But that process, long criticized as flawed, has been completely stalled, tied up in legal challenges since sweeping changes — intended to make the inquests fairer for families and to address a historical pro-police bias — were announced by County Executive Dow Constantine in 2018.
King County is unique in Washington in that its charter requires an inquest jury be convened for every death caused by law enforcement. Critics, including the families of those who died in several high-profile police killings, have complained for years that the process has wandered far from its original purpose, been blunted as an investigative tool, and tilted hard in favor of law enforcement.
Constantine stopped inquests in 2017 after he determined the inequities were too glaring to ignore; he sought changes through public hearings and expert opinion. Late that year, an expert panel appointed to review the process released a report suggesting a series of reforms — including ensuring that families had legal representation — which Constantine modified, expanded and implemented, prompting lawsuits by both families and police.
Inquests still haven’t resumed while the legality of Constantine’s actions are reviewed by the state Supreme Court. A King County Superior Court judge has already struck down most of the changes, ruling that Constantine overstepped his authority.
As a result, by best count, the families of at least 36 people who have died at the hands of law enforcement in King County since 2017, all due an inquest, have the same questions — and lack of answers — that Stephanie Butts struggles with every day.
“I want the inquest to go forward so I can finally know what happened, how my son’s life ended,” Butts said in a statement to The Seattle Times.
According to police, 19-year-old Damarius Butts was shot by officers on April 20, 2017, following a robbery at a downtown convenience store and a foot chase, during which an officer was shot and struck in her protective vest. According to reports, officers fired at least 18 rounds at Butts, who was Black, after he was cornered and reportedly fired on his pursuers.
“An inquest won’t bring him back. But I think all of us who loved Damarius need the closure that a thorough and transparent inquest will provide,” Stephanie Butts said. “As hard as the delays have been, they’re worth it if we end up with a fairer inquest process.”
Others share in that frustration, including King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg. He said the inquest bottleneck is hampering his ability to make final decisions on whether to criminally charge any of the police officers involved in those killings, something the prosecuting attorney’s office has historically done only after a public inquest.
Satterberg stressed that prosecutors review each investigation and can file criminal charges before an inquest if the evidence warrants. That’s what happened with Jeff Nelson, the Auburn officer Satterberg charged with second-degree murder last August for the shooting death of 26-year-old Jesse Sarey. Nelson, an officer with a significant history of using force, pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.
Nelson is the first officer charged with killing someone in the line of duty in King County since 1971, which notably is the last time an inquest jury recommended a police officer be charged for a shooting: A Seattle officer was charged with manslaughter for shooting an unarmed 21-year-old Black man in the back. The inquest jury concluded the shooting was unnecessary.
At that point — on the heels of a decade of civil-rights unrest — police and their supporters, including county prosecutors, began to tinker with the inquest system, feeding the jurors softball questions that at times, from the viewpoint of the families of those killed, avoided the real issues and sometimes approached the absurd.
A court brief filed by the attorneys for three families with loved ones killed by police in 2017 cited as an example the 1978 coroner’s jury inquest into the death of John Rodney, a 26-year-old developmentally disabled Black man. The unarmed Rodney was shot in the back while running from an officer. However, the jury was not allowed to explore whether the shooting was reasonable, criminal or violated department policy. Instead, the six jurors were asked if the officer “believed it was necessary” to kill him.
“It became clear that the system wasn’t following state law,” said Corey Guilmette, a Seattle attorney who is representing the family of Charleena Lyles, a Black, pregnant mother of four killed by two Seattle officers after she allegedly threatened them with a kitchen knife.
“Inquests into law enforcement killings increasingly asked juries only whether officers believed killings were necessary, or whether officers believed they were in danger,” wrote lawyers for the families of Lyles, Isaiah Obet and Butts, all killed in 2017 and awaiting inquests, in briefs filed with the state Supreme Court. “Objective questions about the full circumstances of killings, such as the reasonableness of the officers’ beliefs, the availability of other options, and whether officers complied with departmental policies started to disappear.”
Fifty years and dozens of controversial shootings without an adverse inquest finding, the families say, stretches credulity.
“The purpose of the inquest is transparency,” Satterberg said, something denied both the public and the families at this point. “I absolutely share in their frustrations.”
“I want to support the executive’s decision to reform the process, but there is a downside — these delays,” he said.
Constantine said he had little choice, convinced the inquest process was broken when he formed a committee to review it in late 2017, a grim year that saw 11 fatal police shootings, including the high-profile killings of Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens and Tommy Le, whose family convinced Constantine to address the issue. Meetings with other families cemented the decision, he said.
“The charter requires a ‘fair and public’ process, and this wasn’t that,” Constantine said. “These cases are all different, but the results were always the same.”
Some of the families have sued to force the county to conduct even more pointed probes than Constantine is seeking. They want to be able to subpoena officers, force their appearance and testimony at the hearing and have the six-member inquest jury determine if “criminality” or negligence was involved, even if that finding isn’t legally binding.
Constantine worries that police, who can’t be compelled, will simply stop participating in the process if that occurs.
One of the issues in the past has been that the inquest juries have been given the appearance of legal proceedings — held in a courtroom, presided over by a district court judge and presented by a prosecutor — even though the hearings are administrative and the verdicts carry no legal weight. Inquest verdicts have been interpreted as exonerations, and they’re not, said Constantine.
Inequities in the King County inquest system have long been obvious, critics say: Families have been forced to hire their own attorneys if they want to participate, for example. Police, meantime, have been represented by union lawyers and the county by a prosecutor.
Sonia Joseph, the mother of Giovonn Joseph-McDade, walked out of the inquest into his death at police hands after the judge refused to grant a brief continuance so her family’s new lawyer — hired days before, after the family scrambled to raise enough money — could get up to speed.
That attorney, Pat Bosmans, also represented the mother of Dunlap-Gittens at an inquest in which the judge refused to allow the inquest jury to hear evidence that the officers who shot the teenager five times in the back had the wrong man and had violated the department’s undercover policy.
“I just didn’t get to participate,” said Alexis Dunlap, who said she had to leave the hearing when the officer who opened fire on her son testified. “I’m convinced the jury was confused. I’d like to see the whole thing done over.”
“It was staged … a dog and pony show,” said Frank Gittens, the teen’s father. “There was no context. They wouldn’t allow us to ask the questions.”
Dunlap-Gittens’ parents settled a lawsuit against the county for $2.25 million. The Joseph-McDade shooting resulted in a $4.4 million settlement from the city of Kent.
The Joseph-McDade family, through Bosmans, has asked Constantine to convene a second inquest in that case.
Police, for their part, defend the old system and have countersued to stop both Constantine and the families from expanding the process. Initially, the lawsuit was backed by large and smaller departments alike, although Seattle police withdrew from the challenge under political and public pressure questioning their opposition to police reforms.
The King County Sheriff’s Office and a number of smaller south county agencies (Federal Way, Auburn, Renton and Kent) — some where controversial police shootings have occurred — have persisted in the challenge and so far have succeeded, convincing a King County judge last August to throw out Constantine’s revisions as an unconstitutional executive overreach. The state Supreme Court agreed to hear the case on an expedited calendar. A decision is pending.
Constantine said that if the justices rule against him, he will reconvene the families and try to come up with another plan. “We will just have to circle back around,” he said. “These families are wanting for answers and they deserve them.”
Those agencies and officers argued that they have “embraced inquests as a valuable tool to inform the community of circumstances that led to the use of deadly force,” according to filings with the state Supreme Court. However, they argued that Constantine’s revisions have compromised their civil rights and “stacked the deck against them.”
“The executive has transformed a once useful, non-adversarial tool into a
highly adversarial proceeding,” wrote attorneys representing the officers involved in the Butts and Lyles shootings. “An inquest is not a political instrument; it is a statutory tool with a strict and limited purpose — determining the facts and circumstances surrounding a death involving law enforcement.”
The Coroner’s Act was initially enacted in 1854, the year after the establishment of the Washington Territory and 35 years before statehood was achieved. It was an attempt to impose some authority and order on the lawlessness of the pioneer Pacific Northwest by setting up a procedure for inquiries into unnatural or suspicious deaths.
The act gave territorial coroners — now county coroners — broad authority to hold inquest proceedings and make factual findings regarding deaths, including issuing subpoenas, compelling witnesses and convening a jury whose job is “setting forth who the person killed is, if known, and when, where and by what means he or she came to his or her death; or if he or she was killed, or his or her death was occasioned by the act of another by criminal means, who is guilty thereof, if known.”
In most counties, officials have ceded many if not all of these tasks to a medical examiner, and coroner’s juries have become a statewide rarity — except in King County. Its county charter mandates an inquest jury examine every death involving a law enforcement officer, a requirement recently broadened to include not just shootings or in-custody deaths, but when an “action, decision, or possible failure to offer appropriate care by a member of a law enforcement agency might have contributed to a person’s death.”
Constantine’s broad revisions, in addition to requiring the county to provide attorneys to families of people killed by police, would separate the inquest process from the courts and King County prosecutor’s office, appointing special hearing officers and attorneys to present the evidence, in an effort to reduce the impression they are legal proceedings rather than administrative.
The executive also moved to expand the traditional, narrow fact-finding mission of King County inquests to allow the juries to look at a department’s policies and whether they were followed, and provided for limited subpoenas, depositions and expert testimony.
La Rond Baker, a King County public defender who is representing Stephanie Butts and the family of Isaiah Obet, who was shot by Auburn’s Officer Nelson in June 2017 — both inquests are pending — argued their case in front of the state Supreme Court justices.
Auburn settled a lawsuit with Obet’s family for $1.25 million shortly before it was announced that Nelson would face charges for shooting Jesse Sarey while on duty in 2019.
Baker dismissed the arguments of law enforcement and the involved cities that a more robust inquest process would disadvantage officers, violate their rights against self-incrimination, or expose them to additional liability.
“These issues are not new; we wrangle with these concepts all the time,” she said. “The community at large has spoken” when voters passed amendments to the charter last year providing public lawyers to families of those harmed by police violence and expanding when the executive can call a coroner’s jury.
“This needs to be a public thing, and it needs to be out of the hands of law enforcement,” she said. “A robust inquest process brings more credibility to the system — it lets the community be heard.”