A King County coroner’s inquest jury on Friday unanimously found the fatal shooting of Robert Lightfeather by Federal Way police in 2017 was lawful, justified and within the city’s deadly force and de-escalation policies.
The seven-man, one-woman jury deliberated less than three hours before returning to find that Federal Way Officers Austin Rogers and Tyler Turpin acted in self-defense and in defense of the public when they shot and killed Lightfeather, who had pointed a gun at another man and the officers at the Pink Elephant Car Wash on Pacific Highway South.
The jury unanimously found that Rogers was justified when he fired 14 rounds at Lightfeather, who collapsed to the pavement with seven gunshot wounds, four of which would have been nearly instantly fatal. Turpin, who is no longer employed by Federal Way, also fired his weapon, but the jury could not decide whether any of his rounds struck Lightfeather. Forensic evidence was inconclusive, and several of the rounds were never recovered.
The jury also couldn’t decide whether Turpin verbally warned Lightfeather before opening fire, as the officer testified he didn’t recall if he shouted a warning while moving toward cover after Lightfeather pointed a gun at him.
Rogers said he didn’t have time to order Lightfeather to drop the gun as Lightfeather turned to him and racked the slide of a handgun as Rogers was climbing out of his patrol car.
The jurors’ findings diverged on just two of the inquest administrator’s 43 questions, based on four days of testimony. Three of the jurors said it was “unknown” whether Lightfeather dropped his gun on command; the other five jurors said he did not.
Five of the jurors said it would have been feasible for the officers to issue a verbal warning before shooting him. All eight said it was “unknown” whether such a warning was issued.
Lightfeather’s family did not attend the inquest, saying they did not want to be further traumatized by having to relive painful memories. In a statement to the jury, the family described Lightfeather as a funny, kind husband and father of two.
The family’s attorney, Teri Rogers Kemp, declined to comment on the verdict until she had time to review the jury’s responses and discuss the verdict with the family.
According to testimony, Lightfeather was intoxicated when he pulled his vehicle into the car wash parking lot, apparently to tell two other men that their car was smoking and appeared to be overheating. Witnesses said the men were drinking for about 20 minutes when Lightfeather produced a handgun and pointed it at one of the men.
A passerby called 911, and Rogers and Turpin — both of whom had been in the area — responded within minutes. Turpin testified that Lightfeather pointed the gun at him and that he was scrambling to get behind his patrol car as Rogers pulled up behind him.
Rogers testified that Lightfeather immediately turned to him and raised a handgun in his left hand, racking the slide back with his right. Rogers said he opened fire within seconds and never had time to say anything.
“It happened so fast,” he testified Thursday. “By the time I was out of my vehicle he was pointing a gun at me. There was no real alternative to stop this male from pointing a gun at me. Deadly force was the only option.”
Dr. Timothy Williams, a King County Medical Examiner’s Office pathologist, said toxicology tests showed Lightfeather’s blood alcohol level was measured at 0.24%, three times the level required to prove legal intoxication.
Rogers was the final witness in the third King County inquest held since the Washington Supreme Court unanimously turned aside challenges by several King County police agencies, including Federal Way, to an expanded inquest process. The county is unique in Washington and a rarity in the U.S. in that its charter requires a coroner’s jury to review the facts, circumstances and possible criminality involved in any law-enforcement related death of a citizen.
The county halted inquests in 2018 to revise the process to make it more transparent and accessible to the families of people killed by police and to address historical racial discrimination and pro-police biases that had emerged from the process in the 1960s and ’70s.
There’s a backup of 56 pending inquests, as a result. In roughly half of those cases, jurors will be asked to weigh the officer’s actions against a state police deadly force statute that, up until it was changed in 2019, makes it virtually impossible for jurors to seek criminal charges against an officer. Rogers’ and Turpin’s actions were reviewed under the provisions of the old statute.
Inquests juries convened for the prior two proceedings — involving the Seattle Police Department’s fatal 2017 shootings of Damarius Butts and Charleena Lyles — found the officers in both circumstances were justified in using deadly force.