The father of Charleena Lyles broke down during her inquest Wednesday, tearfully disputing a suggestion by an attorney for the two officers who shot her that she died through “suicide by cop.”
Charles Lyles interrupted the proceedings after Seattle attorney Ted Buck proposed evidence that suggests the pregnant, 30-year-old mother of four pulled a small knife on Seattle Police officers Jason Anderson and Steven McNew to provoke them into killing her.
The jury was not present during the outburst.
Meanwhile, the hearing was suspended for extensive coronavirus testing after Buck and the family’s attorney Melanie Nguyen both tested positive. Nguyen did not attend the hearing. Buck went home after he tested positive on a rapid test. His law partner, Karen Cobb, tested negative.
The inquest — a county-ordered fact-finding process examining circumstances around Lyles’ 2017 death — resumed Wednesday afternoon with Buck joining via Zoom.
Inquest Administrator Michael Spearman said he would not allow the officers’ lawyers to introduce the concept that Lyles wanted police to kill her to the jury, saying there is no evidence for what her motives were when she called police to report a burglary.
Earlier, Charles Lyles, who has disparaged the officers’ actions in low tones throughout the proceedings from his seat at counsel table, interrupted Buck as he explained purported evidence to Spearman that he says bolsters the belief.
Lyles can be heard on an audio recording of the shooting saying something to the effect of “Do it!” just before the shots are fired.
The officers — who may testify later — in their reports stated Lyles acted and conversed with them normally after reporting a burglary, when she suddenly produced a small knife and lunged at them. The officers drew their service weapons and shot her seven times, according to testimony and evidence.
Family attorney Karen Koehler had argued it was “outrageous” and prejudicial to allow the officers to suggest Lyles “committed suicide by cop in front of her children.” Three of them, ages 13, 12 and 4, were in the apartment and witnessed the shooting. Lyles was also four months pregnant at the time.
That’s when Charles Lyles yelled out, “She did not try to commit suicide by police!” and began sobbing.
“They keep lying on my daughter!” he cried, his voice cracking. “She’s gone! They killed her! It hurts when they keep saying that!”
“I’m tired of this! It’s wrong,” he said.
Spearman adjourned and asked him to leave the conference room at the Judge Patricia H. Clark Children and Family Justice Center. Lyles later apologized for his outburst.
Wednesday is the fifth day of testimony before an eight-member coroner’s jury looks into the circumstances surrounding Lyle’s death. Many in the community question why two officers used deadly force to subdue a 5-foot-3-inch woman who had a known history of mental illness and was armed with a 4-inch paring knife.
Hers is one in a series of deaths of young Black people in 2017 that galvanized the community and spurred reforms to the King County inquest process, which is unique in the state and requires a jury to examine all law enforcement-related deaths. It also provided a focus for police reform and the Black Lives Matter movement.
During afternoon testimony, Seattle police acting Capt. George Davisson, of the department’s policy and research division, said officers Anderson and McNew followed the department’s de-escalation, use-of-force and deadly force policies during their confrontation with Lyles.
He was questioned on why the officers did not warn Lyles they were going to shoot her, as policy requires a verbal warning whenever possible. He said the situation devolved into a confrontation very quickly, and that just 19 seconds passed between her pulling a knife and them repeatedly warning her to get back and they shot her.
“They had 19 seconds to figure out what to do,” he said. “It was a rapidly evolving situation.”
Both officers repeatedly told Lyles to “get back,” although neither specifically told her to drop the knife they said she was holding. There was no cover in Lyles’ small apartment near Magnuson Park, and very little room for the officers to maneuver — two of the key elements to de-escalate a situation without using force.
“She had unrestricted, unabated access to the officers,” Davisson said. “The threat was imminent.”
Koehler, the family’s attorney, focused on the officers’ decision to fire while there were three children in an adjoining living room.
“Do officers get protection above the public?” she asked. “Were they protecting themselves at the risk of the children being killed?” Koehler added, prompting objections by attorneys for the city and the officers.
Davisson, under questioning by Karen Cobb, an attorney for the officers, noted that none of the children were “physically harmed.”