The attorney for the family of Charleena Lyles challenged the recollection Friday of one of the Seattle police officers who said he had his back against a closed door when he shot her, confronting him with a surveillance video that showed him backing through an open door into a hallway as the shots rang out.
Officer Jason Anderson, in sworn testimony before a coroner’s inquest jury Friday and in a statement to investigators two days after Lyles was killed in 2017, recalled the front door to the apartment being closed when he jumped back as Lyles lunged at him with a knife, missing his belly by inches.
Using a 3D model of a Glock handgun and standing in a plywood and cardboard mock-up of the entryway of Lyles’ small apartment — with family lawyer Karen Koehler standing in for Lyles — Anderson reiterated his recollection that his back was against a closed door with Lyles, who had a small knife, just a few feet away when he opened fire.
However, an apartment building surveillance video, synchronized to audio from Anderson’s police cruiser dash camera, showed the officer backing into the hallway, his feet and legs visible as the volley of gunfire can be heard. Koehler played the video for the officer and six-member jury twice Friday.
“Do you agree you were outside the apartment when you shot Ms. Lyles?” she asked.
“My feet were outside the apartment. That’s what the video appears to show,” Anderson said. “My recollection was that I was inside the apartment.”
The issue is significant because Seattle Police Department policy and procedure witnesses have testified that the department requires officers, whenever feasible, to de-escalate volatile circumstances, and one of the key methods is creating distance between the officer and a threat. Anderson and his partner, Officer Steven McNew, have said they opened fire on Lyles because they had no choice in the close confines of her small, cluttered two-bedroom apartment.
Friday also saw dramatic and anguishing testimony by McNew, a 14-year SPD veteran who was the other officer who shot Lyles. McNew, a certified crisis intervention officer, dealt after the shooting with three of Lyles’ children, who were in the apartment when their mother was killed.
In King County, an inquest jury is to be convened for every death caused by law enforcement. The process is a public inquiry to explore the facts, whether police followed proper procedures, and if “criminality” was involved.
McNew is the 18th and final witness in this inquest. Questioning will continue Tuesday, when the jury will be asked to provide answers to roughly 85 questions examining the details of how Lyles died, whether the officers involved followed department procedures and policy, and whether her death involved criminal means.
SPD has cleared the officers of wrongdoing. Both remain with the department.
Under questioning, McNew sparred with Koehler over whether he knew or should have known that Lyles may have had a mental illness or been in crisis, and approached her differently that day. He acknowledged there was information about Lyles’ history of mental health in reports the officers could have accessed that morning, but didn’t.
McNew offered wrenching testimony of how one of Lyles’ sons came out of a bedroom after the gunfire. He said he asked the boy to “please go back.”
“Why?” inquest attorney Claire Thornton asked.
“Because we had just shot his mom and he knew what had happened,” McNew said. When he looked back, her youngest son had crawled onto his mother’s body. “I remember being horrified,” he said. He picked the child up off Lyles “and told him it would be all right.”
He said he shot Lyles because she had turned her attention toward him from Anderson and was moving around an island between the living room and kitchen, where he was located. “She would have unrestricted access to me,” he said.
Anderson, answering questions from his attorney, Ted Buck, said he fired when Lyles turned her attention to McNew, who was close by in the apartment’s kitchen with nowhere to go. He said he waited until the last possible moment to fire out of concern that Lyles’ children were in his line of fire, and said that Lyles was potentially moving into a position where neither officer could fire without possibly hitting one another.
Lyles, 30, a pregnant mother of four, had reported a burglary the morning of June 18, 2017, and Anderson responded, expecting it to be a “paper call,” a low-level call usually involving a single officer who questions the victim and files a report.
However, Anderson found a report that showed Lyles had assaulted SPD officers during a domestic violence call 13 days earlier, suddenly pulling out a large pair of shears and making “nonsensical” statements about morphing into a wolf and talking about cloning her daughter. An “officer safety caution” filed with the report resulted in Anderson calling a second officer, McNew.
Both officers went into her apartment and the initial interaction was cordial, Anderson has testified, but a few minutes into the call Lyles’ demeanor changed suddenly, and she pulled a small knife from her pocket and lunged at Anderson.
On the audio, both officers can be heard yelling “get back! get back!” and McNew called for a stun gun, but Anderson said he didn’t have one. Anderson, who was supposed to carry the less-lethal tool while on duty, was later disciplined for leaving it in his locker because its battery was dead. Both officers insisted that using a stun gun in this circumstance would not have been tactically appropriate.
Under questioning from Koehler, McNew insisted that he called for the stun gun “even though I knew it was not appropriate … because I did not want to have to shoot Ms. Lyles.”
“I yelled it out in desperation,” he said.
The officers shot Lyles seven times.
Koehler asked both officers why they never ordered Lyles to drop the knife or warn that she would be shot in the 19 seconds between when Anderson said she pulled the knife and the shots were fired. SPD policy officials have testified the department requires a warning before deadly force is used whenever feasible.
Koehler also represented the family in a civil lawsuit against the department, which was settled last year for $3.5 million.