King County Executive Dow Constantine has reinstated the deadly-force inquest process after a nearly two-year overhaul officials say should provide a “more fair and transparent” system for reviewing deaths at the hands of law enforcement by giving the families of those killed more representation, focusing more on policies and procedures that might prevent future killings and erasing a longstanding perception that the process has favored police.
At a news conference Thursday, Constantine introduced individuals who will be keys to the new process — including a trio of former judges who will preside over the inquests. He also said he has ordered an inquest under the new system into the first of five police-related deaths whose inquests were suspended when he put a hold on the process in December 2017.
Constantine said he sent a letter to the King County Superior Court on May 20 ordering an inquest into the April 20, 2017, shooting of Damarius Butts by Seattle police.
Four others are pending — the deaths of Isaiah Obet, killed by Auburn police on June 10, 2017; Eugene D. Nelson, shot by Kent officers on Aug. 9, 2017; Tommy Le, killed by a King County sheriff’s deputy on June 13, 2017; and Charleena Lyles, shot to death by Seattle officers on June 18, 2017. Seven other officer-related deaths are pending inquest recommendations by Constantine, according to information provided at the news conference.
“It is imperative that this process be fair and transparent,” Constantine said. “We realize that inquests can be politically charged, and we will strive to make sure they are fair. They are not trials, but fact-finding missions.”
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 process is intended to merely be a fact-finding device and provide an opportunity to publicly clear the air over officer-involved deaths. However, over the years, they had taken on the appearance of a trial — run by a judge and presented by a prosecutor to a panel of “jurors” — with the results almost always the same: the jury answering a series of questions and finding the officer feared for their life or the lives of others and implying that the death was justified.
Although there is no precise historical record of all King County inquests, it appears that only one police officer, in a 1971 incident, was criminally charged after an inquest.
The inquest jury decided in a 5-to-1 vote that the Seattle police officer’s fatal shooting of a man was not necessary to make an arrest. A jury found the officer not guilty of manslaughter.
Constantine has said the new process will move away from the trappings of a trial and focus on whether police followed policies and training, and less on an officer’s individual perceptions. He acknowledged that the inquest findings will have no binding authority over a department, its policies or how they are implemented. The hope, he said, will be to reduce the number of police-involved deaths.
A key change — and one welcomed by all involved — is that the county will now provide an attorney for the families of individuals killed by law enforcement to ensure they have representation at the inquest proceedings. The families will be allowed to present a statement to the inquest panel — no longer called a jury — describing their loved one.
Families will for the first time be able to suggest witnesses, although the inquest administrator — formerly a district court judge, but now a retired judge or an attorney with judicial experience — will have final say who testifies, said Robert McBeth, a retired judge who is one of three named to that position. The others are retired Washington Court of Appeals Judge Michael Spearman, and former King County Superior Court judge Terrence Carroll.
McBeth said Spearman will handle the Butts and Lyles inquests, since both he and Carroll have a conflict of interest having had professional dealings with the Seattle Police Department.
Constantine also introduced Matt Anderson, a former prosecutor and pro tem judge who is one of several attorneys who will present the case to a four- or six-member inquest panel — a position once occupied by a deputy King County prosecutor — and Dee Sylve, who will schedule and coordinate the inquest proceedings and act as the public information officer.
All of the inquest proceedings will be recorded and made available on the King County website, Sylve said.
Families, who in the past have not been represented at the inquests unless they have been able to hire an attorney, will now be appointed a representative from the public defender’s office, said Anita Khandelwal, the director of the Office of Public Defense. Families can still hire their own attorney.
After suspending the inquest process in 2017, Constantine appointed a six-member review committee which authored an 89-page report recommending that inquests be conducted by hearing officers and staff attorneys, rather than judges and King County prosecutors.
Constantine’s initial goal was to have the new process operating by the end of March. The 2019-20 budget includes $560,000 for inquest staff and the pools of administrators and attorneys.
Among those at Thursday’s news conference was Katrina Johnson, a cousin to Charleena Lyles, a pregnant mother of four who was shot by two Seattle police officers who say she threatened them with a knife.
Johnson welcomed the inquest changes, but said the proof will be when the department turns over training materials it has so far refused to divulge.
“I do like the fact that we will be able to humanize our loved ones, because they’ve been dehumanized,” she said.
Not all families plan to participate. Attorneys for the family of Tommy Le say any benefit from an inquest has been overtaken by their $10 million federal civil rights claim, which is set to go to trial in Seattle on June 10.
“The jury trial will allow for a full and fair determination of the facts involving the shooting death of Tommy Le,” said attorney Jeff Campiche.