The family of Tommy Le, a 20-year-old Burien man who was fatally shot by a King County sheriff’s deputy in 2017, is calling for the investigation into his death to be included in the list of instances of deadly force by law enforcement that are now being reviewed by the Washington State Attorney General’s Office.
Le, who died hours before he was scheduled to attend his high-school graduation in June 2017, was shot multiple times by sheriff’s Deputy Cesar Molina after responding to reports of a man armed with a knife. Deputies discovered after the shooting that Le was carrying an ink pen, not a knife.
The sheriff’s office was criticized for its response, particularly from the South King County Asian American community; Le was Vietnamese American. The office reported that Le had lunged at the sheriff’s deputies with a knife and had been threatening residents, shouting he was “the creator.” An autopsy showed that two of the three bullets that struck Le were in his back, and a witness said that Le was shouting he was “Tommy the renter,” according to court documents.
A sheriff’s review panel unanimously concluded in 2018 that the shooting was “justified and within department policy.” A trial over a $10 million civil-rights lawsuit filed by Le’s family against King County and Molina is pending.
Le’s death and the subsequent investigation should be independently reviewed, attorneys representing Le’s family members said in a letter to Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Gov. Jay Inslee and Solicitor General Noah Purcell.
Ferguson said last month that his office will review at least 30 investigations of police use of deadly force that occurred this year to ensure each followed a new state police accountability law. Initiative 940, which passed in 2018, was meant to bring independent investigations of law-enforcement killings and improve communications with victims’ families.
The investigation into Le’s death wasn’t included on the list because it occurred before the new rules were in place about how independent investigations should be conducted, the Attorney General’s office said Friday. But Jeff Campiche, an attorney for the Le family, said the Le investigation, which he described as “biased and self-serving” deserves the same treatment as the 2020 investigations.
“An injustice of this magnitude should be not be limited by some arbitrary timeline,” Campiche said Friday.
The King County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment Friday.
Le’s death has received increased attention in the wake of protests that have surged across the U.S. and abroad in response to the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck. In Seattle-area protests, demonstrators chanted his name along with others killed by law enforcement and held up signs with his photo.
“I think definitely it brings up this case much more, but also when you talk about the systemic issues that are at play, this is one of the most egregious examples that I see, so there’s no question why this has been brought up,” said state Sen. Joe Nguyen, a Democrat who represents South King County and has said that Le’s death was one reason he ran for office.
Le’s aunts said they’re often asked about whether progress has been made with their nephew’s case, even three years after his death.
“We came to this country because we believe in the justice system,” Xuyen Le said. “When this happened to Tommy, he didn’t get justice. He died so young. We still have faith in the government and we are still looking forward to the day justice is served.”
The civil-rights lawsuit filed by Le’s family was supposed to go to trial in June 2019, but less than a week before the trial was scheduled to start, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Zilly allowed Molina to appeal Zilly’s decision not to grant the deputy “qualified immunity,” a legal doctrine that routinely protects officers from liability in instances where they have to make split-second, life-or-death decisions under often difficult and murky circumstances.
A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal in late June, allowing the lawsuit to proceed to trial.