The first coroner’s inquest into a deadly shooting by police in King County under a new, greatly expanded process has stalled amid concerns by all involved — the officers, the families of those killed and city officials — over the transparency and integrity of the proceedings.

The inquest into the 2017 killing by Seattle police officers of 19-year-old Damarius Butts — the first under a new system upheld this summer by the Washington Supreme Court — was scheduled to begin Dec. 6 and run for 11 days. But it has been postponed until the new year.

The King County charter requires that a coroner’s inquest be held to look into the facts and circumstances surrounding any death involving law enforcement.

The Butts inquest has been postponed until Jan. 24 — and perhaps beyond — after the involved parties, in a rare move, came together to file a joint motion that expressed “serious and legitimate” apprehensions over rushed deadlines, access to witnesses and unwieldy orders issued by the inquest administrator.

Going further, Ghazal Sharifi, the section director for government affairs in the Seattle city attorney’s office, wrote in a Nov. 23 email to the parties — a copy of which was obtained by The Seattle Times — in which she expressed “deep disappointment in the purported integrity of this Inquest process.”

King County inquest process

King County’s charter requires an inquest jury review all deaths caused by police. In 2021, the process was expanded to include the appointment of an attorney to represent the families of those who died at the hands of police; a review of a department’s policies over use of force; and will, for the first time in more than 40 years, include questions about whether the death involved criminality. In addition, officers will be required to testify, something they haven’t always done in the past.

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“The Executive Order identifies the purpose of the inquest as a ‘full, fair and transparent review,’ ” of the deaths of individuals at the hands of law enforcement in King County, as required by the King County charter.

“However, for the last several weeks, the inquest program has jammed the parties with unreasonable deadlines, last minute requests, lengthy interviews of witnesses that should have been better streamlined and shifting and issuance rulings without any transparent justification for the same, without explanation to the parties of the basis for such a decision,” Sharifi wrote.

In a motion submitted on Nov. 23 to inquest administrator Michael Spearman, a retired King County Superior Court judge who served on the state Court of Appeals, attorneys for the involved police officers, the Butts family and the city jointly protested a string of unresolved or problematic issues that could muddle the process, including a cumbersome list of 131 questions the inquest jurors will be expected to answer in the verdict form.

“The nature and large number of proposed interrogatories represents a stark departure from previous inquests,” the motion says. “The sheer number of interrogatories raises serious concerns about the time it will require an inquest panel to evaluate and answer the interrogatories, and how that will impact everyone’s ability to complete” the process in the allotted time.

The parties had asked that the inquest be postponed until March, and have said they may renew that request if the issues aren’t resolved.

Asked by a reporter about her email, Sharifi responded via email: “Please note that despite the general frustrations, our attorneys were working diligently actively preparing to move forward as requested by the inquest program.”

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The delay is a hitch in a new and significantly expanded inquest process sought by King County Executive Dow Constantine in response to complaints by families whose loved ones were killed by police and criticism that the process had over the years been tilted in favor of law enforcement.

King County is unique in Washington in that its charter requires an inquest jury review all deaths caused by police. Most other Washington counties rely on death investigations conducted by a coroner or a medical examiner.

Currently, there have been 52 law enforcement related deaths in King County since 2017 eligible for inquest, according to the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. Investigations into 32 of those have been completed and they have been reviewed and referred by the prosecutor’s office to Constantine’s office for inquest.

Butts was the first, and the others will be handled in chronological order, a process that could add years of uncertainty to the resolution of killings where families and police officers have already been waiting years for answers or resolution.

Except in rare cases, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg has said he will not finalize his decision on whether to criminally charge a police officer for a death without an inquest first being held.

Constantine formed a panel of experts and sought public input, and in 2018 published a report proposing sweeping changes in the system. A number of county law enforcement agencies including Renton, Auburn, Kent and Federal Way police and the King County Sheriff’s Office opposed the changes, arguing the changes strayed from the inquest’s fact-finding mission, and challenged them in court. Seattle, the state’s largest police department, initially had joined the group, but withdrew its opposition.

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In August 2020, King County Superior Court Judge Julie Spector found Constantine had overstepped his authority, and struck down most of the revisions. 

However, in July the Washington Supreme Court overturned Spector and unanimously reinstated the expanded process. The Butts inquest was to be the first case under the new system, and the attorneys involved want to get it right since it could set a precedent for future inquest juries.

“We are trying hard to make it a process that makes sense, both for this case and going forward,” said Seattle attorney Ted Buck, who is one of the lawyers representing the police officers who shot and killed Butts while responding to an armed robbery call downtown on April 20, 2017.

Three officers were shot during a foot chase and confrontation with Butts that ended at a Federal Building loading dock on First Avenue. One officer was seriously injured.

“All of the parties have taken it as a very serious responsibility as the vanguard case,” Buck said. “We need to clarify the process.”

Attorneys for the Butts family declined to comment.

Critics, including the families of those who died in several high-profile police killings, have complained for years that the process has wandered far from its original purpose, been blunted as an investigative tool, and tilted hard in favor of law enforcement.

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Constantine stopped inquests in 2017 after he determined the inequities were legitimate and too glaring to ignore.

Inquest changes initiated by Constantine and upheld by the Supreme Court include the appointment of an attorney to represent the families. The new process takes the inquest system out of the judicial arena, with administrators hearing the evidence and their attorney presenting it to the jury.

The process will include for the first time a review of a department’s policies over use of force and will, for the first time in more than 40 years, include questions about whether the death involved criminality. Officers will be required to testify, something they haven’t always done in the past.

The changes, however, have greatly complicated the process and will almost certainly mean inquests will last longer and be more expensive for cities and the county. Past inquests have rarely lasted a week and usually less. Inquest panels were generally asked a handful of questions, usually revolving around factual issues and whether an officer feared for their life or the lives of others when they used deadly force.

Among the key concerns raised by the parties in their motion for the continuance were conflicting schedules of the parties and witnesses, including the fact that the officers involved were being asked to set aside two weeks of their time when their individual testimony would last just two or three days; a list of proposed exhibits provided by the inquest attorney in a form that made it “incredibly difficult” for the parties to raise objections; and confusion over which Seattle Police Department policies would be subject to scrutiny by the inquest jury. Key witnesses remained to be interviewed and schedules clashed, the motion pointed out.

Moreover, as it stands now, a four- or six-member coroner’s jury empaneled to hear the Butts case would hear nearly two weeks of testimony and be asked to answer, individually, 131 questions about such things as whether each officer followed policy or whether their actions involved a possible violation of the law.

In a statement, Constantine recognized that “the years lost to court cases have delayed justice and accountability for many” and said he is “eager to have the cases resume as soon as they feasibly can.

“It’s not surprising that aligning schedules and timelines has taken some effort, but [I’m] confident that all parties are working together to get the first hearing in motion soon,” he said.