A coroner’s inquest jury unanimously ruled Monday that the four Seattle police officers who shot and killed 19-year-old Damarius Butts in 2017 complied with the law and department policy. However, they were unable to say whether Butts or police officers fired first.
The ruling follows two weeks of testimony during the first inquest under King County’s newly revamped process to examine deaths that occur at the hands of law enforcement officers.
The eight-member jury deliberated for about three hours Friday and resumed deliberations at 9 a.m. Monday before reaching the verdict. They were asked to determine whether the officers who shot and killed Butts following an armed robbery April 20, 2017, complied with the law and department policy.
Jurors were asked to answer “yes, no or unknown” to 84 questions regarding whether each of the involved officers was justified in their use of deadly force, whether they had other options, and whether Butts received medical aid in a timely manner after suffering 11 gunshot wounds.
Butts’ mother, Stephanie Butts, and grandmother Frances sat quietly as the answers were read and declined to comment before leaving the courtroom.
One of their attorneys, Adrien Leavitt, said the women were too emotional to say anything. After waiting nearly five years since the shooting, they sat through all of the testimony and saw all of the exhibits, including the jury’s review of Damarius Butts’ bloodstained clothing and photographs of his body at the scene, handcuffed and face down in a large pool of blood.
In an earlier statement, Stephanie Butts said she hoped the inquest would answer questions about how her son died.
“I think it was really important for them to be here through these proceedings, and hope that it helps the family move forward,” Leavitt said. “You can imagine how difficult this has been for them.”
The inquest was the first held in King County in five years and marks the resumption of a process intended to provide answers to the public and to families of individuals who die at the hands of law enforcement. The process was halted in 2017 and revised to address criticism that it favored law enforcement.
Over the past two weeks, jurors have heard from civilian and Seattle Police Department witnesses, as well as the four officers who fired their weapons after Butts fled into a small vestibule inside the loading dock of the downtown Federal Office Building, located between Marion and Madison streets on Western Avenue.
The parties agreed that Butts was armed with a .38-caliber handgun.
The jurors found the four officers — Elizabeth Kennedy, Joshua Vaaga, Christopher Myers and Canek Gordillo — had reason to believe their lives, or the lives of others, were in imminent danger from Butts when they resorted to using deadly force. They found the officers complied with the department’s policies on the use of deadly force, de-escalation and the use of firearms.
The officers declined to comment, citing an SPD policy that forbids them from talking to the media without permission.
There was a point when it appeared they would refuse to testify at the hearing and would invoke their Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. However, a ruling by Inquest Administrator Michael Spearman, a former Court of Appeals judge, stated that if they didn’t testify, statements compelled by the department’s Force Investigation Team would be read to the jury.
All four eventually took the stand. After the decision was read, they were clearly relieved, quietly talking among themselves and shaking hands with their attorney, Ted Buck.
Kennedy was struck in her protective vest by a round fired by Butts, and another officer, Hudson Kang, was shot in the face. That bullet ricocheted off his jaw, traveled down his neck and wound up in his chest, where it was removed months later. Kang has fully recovered from his injuries and returned to the force.
He wore the bullet that struck him as a necklace until it was gathered as evidence for a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by the family. That lawsuit was dismissed last year.
Kennedy testified that she saw Butts pull a firearm before she fired. All eight members of the jury answered “unknown” to a question asking whether she or Butts fired first during the exchange of gunfire.
“I think this is a significant fact and one of the reasons the inquest was important,” said La Rond Baker, an attorney for the Butts family.
The jury decided unanimously that Kennedy’s rounds were the cause of Butts’ death but were divided on the question of the lethality of rounds fired by the other three officers.
Testimony by Dr. Brian Mazrim, an associate King County medical examiner, revealed that Butts suffered 11 gunshot wounds that caused “devastating” internal injuries to his lungs, heart, liver, pancreas and spine and would have caused death “within minutes.” Evidence showed Butts’ revolver was fired four times.
The family’s attorneys focused on whether Butts was provided medical aid in a timely manner. The coroner’s jury concluded he was treated “as soon as it was reasonably possible.”
The jury also rejected a family claim that Butts was a “barricaded suspect,” which would have prompted a more cautious approach by law enforcement.
Under the new inquest system, the jury’s ability to consider whether police may have broken the law or violated policy was greatly expanded and ensured legal representation for the families.
Butts was killed in 2017 before the passage of citizen’s initiative I-940, which significantly changed the statute governing when police could be charged with homicide. The statute in effect at that time required a showing of both “malice” and that the officer had failed to act in “good faith.”
The inquest jury found the officers were justified, acted in good faith and showed no malice when they fired their weapons.
Currently, there are six pending inquests. The next one is scheduled for Aug. 20-22 in the death of Robert Lightfeather, who was shot and killed by Federal Way police on Oct. 30, 2017, after he allegedly pointed a firearm at two officers.