King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg said Wednesday that his office will not file criminal charges against the two Seattle police officers who shot and killed Charleena Lyles in 2017 — a killing that sparked public outrage and highlighted concerns over police violence against people of color and those with mental illness.
Satterberg’s decision came two weeks after a King County coroner’s inquest jury unanimously found the actions of Officers Jason Anderson and Steven McNew were justified and that they had no alternatives when they shot the pregnant 30-year-old mother of four after she charged them with a small knife in her apartment.
Lyles was struck seven times and bled to death as her infant son crawled on top of her body in her Magnuson Park apartment.
Satterberg said his conversation with Lyles’ father and other relatives “was difficult” and suggested King County officials need to rethink the inquest process, which he said offers little to help his prosecutors decide whether criminal charges should be brought against officers who use lethal force.
The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office has traditionally delayed making final charging decisions in police-involved deaths until inquests are held. Going forward, Satterberg said, that will no longer be the case.
“We will only recommend an inquest be held after we are convinced our investigation is completed and we are sure of our findings,” he told The Seattle Times on Wednesday. “We have to reset the expectations of the value of the inquest process. Truth is, it adds very little to the criminal liability process.”
Satterberg acknowledges that coroner’s inquests provide valuable public transparency about killings by police.
But he said it’s unfair to the public and families of those killed to suggest an inquest could lead to criminal charges against officers if prosecutors have already reviewed the case and determined the officers followed the law.
The verdict in Lyles’ inquest, a massive disappointment to her family, underscores the limitations of the new inquest process, which after years of waiting and litigation had instilled hope in the families of people killed by police that they might find some justice.
Instead, families have been subjected to a painful process that has, so far, resulted in familiar outcomes. The first two inquests under a significantly revamped system intended to give families participation and transparency — reviews of the deaths of Damarius Butts and Lyles — have ended with officers being deemed justified in their actions and cleared of wrongdoing.
“We have to be clear about the purpose of the inquest process,” Satterberg said. “It is a public transparency issue, not one of criminal liability.”
The Lyles family has complained bitterly about the process, which focused on the officers’ actions and excluded evidence of Lyles’ significant mental illness — a topic Inquest Administrator Michael Spearman determined was irrelevant to a factual review of the circumstances leading to Lyles’ death.
Satterberg’s office had reviewed the shooting after an initial investigation by the Seattle Police Department’s Force Investigation Team and made an initial determination that no crime had been committed.
However, Satterberg, following decades of tradition, waited until after the inquest before making his final decision. No longer, he said.
Only a single King County police officer, Jeff Nelson of Auburn, has been charged with murder for actions in the line of duty in more than 40 years, and that case came only after the 2018 passage of I-940, which removed barriers to charging police under state law governing the use of deadly force.
New inquest process
The inquest process has proven controversial and cumbersome, particularly in the last several years.
King County Executive Dow Constantine halted inquests shortly after Lyles was killed and said he would overhaul a process that had strayed from its original purpose and tilted heavily in favor of law enforcement. A review of inquests showed that no jury had ruled against an officer in a police-involved death in more than 40 years.
The resulting embargo on inquests has left a backlog of at least 56 pending inquests, dating back to 2017, and dozens of families feeling justice has been delayed or denied.
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.
Constantine in 2017 appointed a committee to review the inquest process and come up with one that was more transparent and fair.
The new process allows the county to appoint attorneys to represent the families of people killed by officers and gives inquest jurors an expanded role, allowing them to review whether an officer’s actions were reasonable and the role that policy and training played in those decisions. The new process also emphasizes that inquest juries can review whether deaths were the result of “criminality.”
While that question is required by the inquest statute, Satterberg said the inquest is not set up to meet the stringent standards of a criminal investigation or prosecution.
In the Lyles and Butts inquests, the officers testified only after being compelled to take the stand by their employers under a U.S. Supreme Court decision, Garrity v. New Jersey, which protects police officers and other public employees from being forced to incriminate themselves. Garrity states that public employers can order their workers to make statements, in potential violation of their Fifth Amendment protections, but that prosecutors can’t use those statements against the workers in court.
“We can’t use anything they say,” Satterberg said.
Moreover, Satterberg said the burden of proof applied by jurors in an inquest is far less stringent than the standard used in criminal cases.
Satterberg’s decision not to wait for inquest outcomes before deciding whether to charge officers in police-involved deaths has potentially far-reaching impacts.
The prosecutor’s office has already preliminarily concluded that most of the 56 law enforcement-involved deaths pending inquest don’t warrant criminal charges. Satterberg’s announcement will dash the hopes of those families who held out hope that an inquest jury verdict might force another conclusion.
Fatal apartment encounter
Lyles had called police the morning of June 28, 2017, to report a burglary, although evidence would later show there was no evidence one had actually occurred. Lyles had a long history of interactions with police, including an incident 10 days prior in which she had threatened an officer with a pair of scissors.
Anderson, aware of an “officer safety warning” resulting from that incident, called for backup, and he and McNew responded to her apartment. Lyles was home with three of her children and invited the officers in. She was showing them around the apartment, telling them what she claimed had been taken when she suddenly pulled a small knife out of her pocket an lunged at Anderson, who said he barely avoided being stabbed.
Both officers repeatedly ordered Lyles to get back, and McNew called for Anderson to use his Taser, which Anderson had left in his locker because its batteries were dead. Both officers drew their service weapons and shot Lyles repeatedly.
Anderson was disciplined for not having his stun gun, although the inquest jury found that it would not have been an effective alternative at that point.
The inquest revealed discrepancies in the officers’ versions of the events. Anderson said he was backed up against a door when he fired, for example, but surveillance video showed the door was open and that he was partially in the hallway when the shots were fired.