The city of Seattle has agreed to pay $3.5 million to settle a wrongful-death civil lawsuit filed on behalf of the children of Charleena Lyles, a Black mother of four who was fatally shot by two Seattle police officers in June 2017.
Karen Koehler, a Seattle attorney who represented Lyles’ estate, said the case was scheduled to go to trial in King County Superior Court in February before the settlement was reached Monday night.
“For the family and especially for the children, it’s a restoration of dignity,” Koehler said of the settlement announced Tuesday after “a marathon” 13 1/2-hour session mediated by retired King County Superior Court Judge John Erlick.
Lyles’ children, two girls and two boys now between the ages of 5 and 16, are being raised in California by Lyles’ aunt, Merry Kilpatrick. The two youngest have special needs and Kilpatrick is in the process of adopting them, Koehler said.
Koehler said the settlement says to them that their mother “did nothing that should’ve led to her death … she should not have received seven bullets.”
Dan Nolte, a spokesman for Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, called Lyles’ shooting death an indisputable tragedy and said in an email that he’s glad the settlement agreement has brought some closure to the parties involved.
“We stand by the multiple layers of review of this event and are pleased that the officers will be dismissed from the lawsuit. The remaining parties will be mutually seeking judicial approval for a resolution of all claims,” Nolte wrote.
The Seattle Police Department, in a statement posted online, echoed Nolte’s sentiments and added that Lyles’ killing highlights how police are often called upon to confront complicated issues that haven’t been adequately addressed by other systems.
“We hope that this tragic case continues to serve to drive momentum towards comprehensive, holistic reform of all systems that meet at the intersection of public health and public safety,” the SPD statement says.
Two Seattle police officers responded to Lyles’ apartment in Northeast Seattle on June 18, 2017, after Lyles, 30 and pregnant at the time, called 911 to report a burglary. Evidence at the scene pointed to a staged burglary, and according to the officers, she suddenly attacked them with one or two knives and they fatally shot her in the cramped confines of her kitchen.
Lyles’ death sparked protests and outrage, including allegations the shooting fit a pattern of institutionalized racial bias by police. Officers Jason Anderson and Steven McNew are white.
In the 18 months before she died, Lyles — a victim of domestic violence with documented mental health issues — called Seattle police 23 times, and police said she threatened officers with a pair of shears as they responded to a June 5, 2017, disturbance call before dropping them.
In its lawsuit, Lyles’ estate had argued that officers did not act reasonably because they failed to use nonlethal force to disarm or subdue her.
Anderson, who was certified to use a Taser and under SPD policy was required to carry it, received a two-day suspension for failing to do so on the day Lyles was killed. The Taser’s battery had died and it had been sitting in his locker.
Seattle police ultimately determined that the officers acted reasonably in shooting Lyles and that a Taser application would have been unlikely to subdue her given the confined space and the fact that she was wearing a bulky jacket.
In early 2019, a Superior Court judge dismissed the lawsuit, agreeing with Anderson and McNew that under Washington law, it is a “complete defense” in any action for damages for personal injury or wrongful death if the person injured or killed was committing a felony at the time, and that the felony was a proximate cause of the injury or death.
But a state Court of Appeals three-judge panel overruled the trial judge in February 2021 after attorneys representing Lyles’ estate submitted opinions from three experts: The first said the officers’ use of firearms was unreasonable and contrary to the Seattle Police Department’s de-escalation policies; the second said Lyles’ death could have been prevented had Anderson been carrying his Taser; and the third said Lyles was in a psychotic state and was therefore unable to form the intent to assault the officers.
The Court of Appeals reversed the trial judge’s ruling barring the three experts from testifying, determining that the question of whether lethal force was necessary or breached a duty of care was best left to a jury to decide.
Now that the wrongful-death suit has been resolved, the Lyles family will turn their attention to an inquest into Lyles’ death. In July, King County Executive Dow Constantine signed an order allowing inquests, which are required for any death involving law enforcement, to resume after a three-year legal fight over far-reaching changes aimed at making the process fairer to families of those killed by police.
Koehler said Lyles’ death is third in line for an inquest but a date has not yet been set.
During Tuesday’s news conference, Katrina Johnson, who like other family members appeared over Zoom, said the family is forever traumatized by her cousin’s death but thanked the community for continuing “to lift up Charleena’s name” in social justice protests for police reform.
“No amount of money will bring my mom back,” said Lyles’ 15-year-old son, identified only by his first initial, Q. And while he and his sisters and brother won’t have their mother’s emotional support, he said he appreciated getting some financial support to help make up for their loss.
Q, Johnson and Lyles’ father, Charles Lyles, all said they would still like to see Anderson and McNew criminally prosecuted for shooting Lyles.
But Lyles’ death occurred before lawmakers and voters passed Initiative 940 in 2018, which ultimately removed a decades-old standard that required prosecutors to prove that officers acted with malice and a lack of good faith, making it all but impossible to prove negligence in fatal, officer-involved shootings.
“Both things are true: prosecutors are required by law to handle the case with the pre-I-940 standards, and also believe that the death of Charleena Lyles was a tragedy,” Casey McNerthney, a spokesman for Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, said in an email.