In two cases, King County District Court Judge Janet Garrow instructed TV and other media photographers to not show the faces of a firefighter and a police officer.
A King County judge overseeing the inquest into the fatal shooting of Che Taylor by Seattle police is allowing witnesses to have their faces shielded in news coverage, calling into question the openness and credibility of a fact-finding proceeding intended to foster public trust.
One Seattle police officer, Joseph Stankovich, who was not involved in the shooting but provided security at the scene last year, was granted his request to not have his face photographed.
Stankovich expressed concerns over what he labeled the “high profile” and “racially charged” nature of the event, an apparent reference to Taylor being black and the angry reaction to the shooting from people in the African-American community.
Seattle firefighter Timothy Hammill, who testified he saw Taylor wearing an empty holster while providing medical treatment, also was allowed to have his face shielded after saying he preferred privacy.
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In both cases, King County District Court Judge Janet Garrow, an 18-year veteran of the bench, instructed TV and other news photographers to not show their faces.
Taylor, 46, was shot at close range by Officers Michael Spaulding and Scott Miller on Feb. 21, 2016, while they were trying to arrest him as a felon in illegal possession of a firearm, which they say they had seen him carrying in the holster.
Both have previously said they feared for their lives when they saw Taylor reach for what they believe was a gun. A handgun was later recovered from a car Taylor was standing next to at the time he was shot in Seattle’s Wedgwood neighborhood.
The two officers have indicated through an attorney that they plan to allow their faces to be photographed when they testify. Other witnesses already have.
The Seattle Times, KING-TV and The Stranger have asked Garrow to limit the shielding of faces, particularly of public servants testifying in a public proceeding — with exceptions possible for police involved in undercover work or other sensitive matters.
A Times attorney sent a letter to Garrow asking her to allow full photography under a state court rule.
“We are aware of no justification particular to this case that would suggest routine photography of the proceedings would intimidate any witness, affect any testimony or disclose any nonpublic information,” Eric Stahl, an attorney with Davis Wright Tremaine, wrote on behalf of The Times.
The Times also registered concerns Wednesday with a staff member of King County Executive Dow Constantine, the official who calls for an inquest.
Alex Fryer, Constantine’s communications director, then sent an email to Garrow.
Fryer wrote he had been contacted by the media “concerning access to the Taylor inquest,” including “photographing some public servants called to testify.”
Fryer also mentioned a restriction Garrow had placed on using audio recording devices in her courtroom.
“In addressing press access issues, we think it is important to consider the purposes of the inquest. In our view, the greatest purpose of the … inquest is to facilitate the flow of information about these critical events — not just to those in attendance, but the entire community. To that end, we rely on the media to have full and customary access, as they would in other public hearings.”
He added: “We want to thank you for taking this on. It is a big responsibility. We ask that you consider the community’s interest in the proceedings and allow the widest possible coverage of the inquest by the media.”
On Thursday, in court, Garrow disclosed her receipt of the letter from The Times attorney and Fryer’s email, calling them “unsolicited” and “inappropriate” attempts to influence the court.
She also said the inquest is not governed by court rules but by separate inquest provisions that allow any witness to ask not to be photographed.
Garrow said she supports media access, while noting an inquest is not a criminal or civil proceeding.
In King County, inquests are held to determine the causes and circumstances of the use of deadly force by law-enforcement officers. Jurors answer a series of questions to establish facts, and the proceeding operates with traditional rules of evidence.
Garrow originally said she would allow witnesses who felt “intimidated” to ask for their faces not to be photographed. She then amended her decision to cover any reason.
She said it can be a “stressful situation” to testify.