Four years after King County sheriff’s deputies shot and killed Renee Davis in her home on the Muckleshoot Indian reservation, Davis’ family continues to seek justice.
The wrongful death lawsuit they filed in 2018 against King County was dismissed. They appealed. It was dismissed again. They’re still in court.
Judges have dismissed the case even while noting the law they’re applying is “problematic” because it doesn’t let them consider whether law enforcement’s actions were reasonable.
The law, the Davis family’s attorney says, is another barrier to holding law enforcement accountable when they use deadly force, even after the 2018 passage of Initiative 940 which was supposed to lower some of those barriers.
Davis was 23 and five months pregnant on Oct. 21, 2016, when her boyfriend asked sheriff’s deputies to check on her welfare, because she’d sent him suicidal text messages. Two deputies entered her home, in the Skopabsh Village neighborhood on the reservation, one with his weapon drawn, according to court findings. Two of Davis’ children, ages 2 and 3, were also in the home.
Davis was lying in bed, under a blanket, when the deputies entered, according to findings from a King County coroner’s inquest. (Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, then an attorney in private practice, represented the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe at the 2017 inquest.)
When one deputy pulled the blanket off her, the inquest found, Davis held a handgun in one hand and a magazine in another. The deputies said they ordered Davis to drop the gun but she pointed it at them, although Davis’ family says there’s no outside evidence to support that. The two deputies fired a total of eight shots, killing her. Davis’ handgun was not loaded.
“My sister was a normal person, just like any of us she did have her ups and downs; I know she did not want to die that day,” Rose Davis, 30, said Saturday at a rally in downtown Seattle. “There were mistakes made and we’d like those mistakes to be accounted for and I’d like people to take responsibility for their actions and their mistakes.”
In dismissing the wrongful death lawsuit, both a King County Superior Court judge and a Washington State Court of Appeals cited a 1986 law passed as part of a national tort reform movement. That law — passed after a California high school student allegedly stealing spotlights from the roof of a school fell through a skylight and sued — bars wrongful injury or death lawsuits if the person was “was engaged in the commission of a felony.”
In Davis’ case, the courts found that since both officers testified that she pointed a gun at them, that she was engaged in felony assault.
But the courts were also uneasy with the application of the law to Davis’ case.
The law’s use “is problematic because it precludes claims where law enforcement officers’ actions and training may have been unreasonable, given their knowledge that the individual they were confronting was suicidal and armed,” Acting Chief Judge David Mann, of the Division I Court of Appeals, wrote in August. The law “prevents courts and juries from reaching the issue of whether law enforcement’s negligence resulted in the loss of life.”
Gabriel Galanda, a Seattle attorney representing Davis’ family, said they’re asking the appeals court to reconsider and, will appeal to the Supreme Court, if necessary.
Galanda said he’d like to see the Legislature change the law because it leaves them no way to challenge the deputies’ version of events.
“This is a ‘They said/she’s dead case,’ ” Galanda said. “You have a civil judge basically adjudicating her criminal guilt. You never even get to a jury because of this statute.”
On Saturday, about 150 people marched solemnly from Capitol Hill to Westlake Center in Seattle, pausing intermittently to sing and drum, to demand justice for Davis.
Donny Stevenson, vice chair of the Muckleshoot Tribal Council, connected the case to the hundreds of other cases of Indigenous women across the country who have been killed or are missing.
“We’re standing up, asserting our identity and saying ‘enough is enough,’ ” Stevenson said. “We’ve survived everything that the Western world has done to eradicate our people.”
Rose James was Davis’ best friend and says she remembers working at the Muckleshoot Head Start program with her on the Friday that she died.
“Just like any other day,” she said.
“I will never believe when these cops say she raised a gun,” James said Saturday. “We can’t afford for people who are supposed to protect and serve our communities to inflict more trauma on us.”