Concerns over fairness and transparency led King County in 2018 to halt and overhaul its system of reviewing killings by police, after finding the inquest process tilted heavily in favor of law enforcement.

But since inquests resumed this year, it’s become apparent the revised process has police-favoring disparities of its own, leading families and some attorneys to question whether inquests are worth the trouble and pain they cause loved ones of those killed by law enforcement. No inquest jury in the past 50 years has found an officer’s actions unjustified. That’s led some observers to call on the county to scrap a system that’s unique among Washington counties and an oddity nationwide.

“I’m just not sure it served any purpose but to traumatize my family,” said Katrina Johnson, a cousin of Charleena Lyles, a mother with mental illness whose 2017 fatal shooting by Seattle police was found justified during a July inquest. “I just think a lot of families are going to get their hopes up, like we did, only to be let down, like we were.”

Johnson, who became a vocal police reformer after Lyles’ death and has since been appointed to a commission overseeing the state police academy, said inquests, even under the revised rules, “continue the police narrative” and offer little in the way of answers or solace to families of those killed by law enforcement.

“The setting is difficult,” she said. “It’s intimidating. It was more traumatizing than helpful.”

The revised system will be on display for the third time Monday, when jurors will begin reviewing the circumstances that led to the shooting death of Robert Lightfeather by Federal Way police officers Austin Rogers and Tyler Turpin.

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In the two inquests held this year, both involving Seattle officers, no outside experts were brought in to testify. Aside from a handful of civilian witnesses and medical experts, jurors have heard only from those ratifying the officers’ actions: the officers themselves, their administrators and trainers.

It’s not yet clear whether that will change during the inquest in the Lightfeather case, which is expected to last through Aug. 30.

Inequities still abound

One of the county’s key changes to the system is providing for the first time legal representation to families who previously had to hire their own attorneys or go unrepresented during inquests.

But these changes, intended to provide families with a voice in the process, have exposed new questions of equity and fairness.

In the inquest in the Lyles case and the March review of 19-year-old Damarius Butts‘ 2017 shooting death, the officers’ attorneys from top-tier Seattle defense firm Frey Buck billed the city more than $450,000.

The two Federal Way officers who shot Lightfeather at a car wash on Pacific Highway South after he reportedly threatened two men with a gun likewise have been provided counsel from a prestigious Seattle firm, the Christie Law Group, which specializes in police defense.

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Meanwhile, the attorney contracted through the state Department of Public Defense to represent Lightfeather’s family, civil rights attorney Teri Rogers Kemp, is being paid a flat fee of $6,000 to work the complex case, which entails significant briefing, several pretrial hearings, witness preparation and long days in trial.

Sade Ada Smith, who contracts with King County as a conflict attorney to take clients who can’t be represented by the public defender office, turned down a $7,500 offer to represent a family in an upcoming inquest.

“That is extremely low for the volume of work involved,” she said. “It probably turns out to less than minimum wage. It’s ridiculous.”

The Department of Public Defense in February issued a request for bids to represent families in upcoming cases, offering up to $50,000 to qualified civil rights attorneys or lawyers with experience defending homicide cases who agree to handle two inquests.

However, as demonstrated by the contracts let to Kemp and offered to Smith, attorneys’ actual pay has proved to be significantly less than $50,000.

A department spokesperson said Director Anita Khandelwal couldn’t comment on the contracts because “things are still in flux.”

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Kemp, a solo practitioner involved in Seattle police reform for more than a decade, says she has an obligation to the cause and to Lightfeather’s family. She’s agreed to do three inquests for $6,000 each, acknowledging she will put in far more time and effort than she’ll be paid for.

“I’ve done police accountability work for free for years,” she said. “I will continue to do so because I believe in it. But I do believe this is a tragedy and that it sends a message to the whole system that the families just don’t mean as much.”

Kemp’s contract has a provision for her to ask for additional funds if justified.

Seattle attorney Karen Kohler, an experienced civil litigator, agreed to represent Lyles’ family in the inquest without additional charge after negotiating a $3.5 million settlement against the city in a wrongful-death lawsuit.

Kohler said the inquest was a “frustrating” experience and at first considered suggesting the family boycott the entire hearing, which she believed would be little more than a “formality” with a foregone conclusion.

The Lyles family had high expectations that the inquest might lead to criminal charges against the officers, even though the inquest jury, in reviewing the officers’ actions, would be asked to apply a police deadly force statute that made it virtually impossible to charge an officer with homicide.

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That statute was repealed in 2019. But inquests into nearly half of King County’s 56 fatal police encounters since 2017 will be conducted with jurors being asked to consider the deaths under the old statute, which was in effect at the time of 25 of the cases.

The county had touted the new process as more accessible and fair to families, and a unanimous Washington Supreme Court had not only upheld the new process but expanded it to allow juries to consider whether a police-related death resulted from “criminal means.” Expectations were high that inquest juries might hold officers criminally accountable when elected prosecutors had not.

Indeed, King County prosecutors had traditionally withheld final charging decisions in deaths at the hands of law enforcement until after inquests were held.

But with a backlog of 56 inquests — the result of legal challenges to the county’s efforts to revamp the process — and the prohibitive, since-repealed law governing roughly two dozen of the upcoming proceedings, Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg announced he was ending that practice after the Lyles hearing.

“It was very difficult to manage those expectation,” Koehler said. The jury’s findings, she said, “were very hard on the family.”

Chase Gallagher, a spokesperson for King County Executive Dow Constantine, said the county inquests were never intended to serve as an avenue to prosecution.

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“We empathize with the families who must go through these tragedies of losing their loved one, and then relive the events during this process,” Gallagher said in a statement. “The inquest process is for transparency and fact finding. It has not been and is not where criminal charging decisions are made — that duty continues to rest with the [Prosecuting Attorney’s Office].

“An inquest helps governments determine if any policies, procedures or trainings need to be changed to prevent the tragedies that an inquest reviews,” he said.

Flawed process still serves the public, lawyers say

Koehler has come to believe that the inquest process, flawed or not, serves a public purpose.

She also said she believes the county can improve the process: better explaining inquests to families, many of whom are low-income or from disenfranchised communities, and cutting back on police policy and administration witnesses, whose testimony is often self-serving.

The Lyles family, Koehler has said, was confronted with “an unflinching blue wall” of Seattle police officials who defended and justified the officers’ actions.

Koehler said she also believes there should be a mechanism to bring in outside experts to testify.

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“Whenever you are able to force the government to answer for its actions, that is good,” she said.

King County is unique in Washington, in that its charter requires an inquest jury be convened for every death caused by law enforcement. Before the decision by Constantine to revise the system in 2018, critics complained for years that the process had wandered far from its original purpose, been blunted as an investigative tool and tilted hard in favor of law enforcement.

Inquests are administrative hearings, and jurors — rather than rendering a verdict — are asked to answer a series of questions that include whether a death was caused “by criminal means.”

Every other county in Washington has turned these duties over to a medical examiner.

Inequities in the King County system have long been obvious, and records indicate that despite dozens of controversial or questionable police killings, no inquest jury has found an officer’s actions illegal or unjustified since 1971, when an inquest jury determined the fatal shooting of a Black man, Leslie Allen Black, in the back by Seattle police Officer Robert Elmore was not justified. Elmore was charged with manslaughter, but was acquitted.

La Rond Baker, a civil rights attorney and former litigation specialist for the Department of Public Defense, coordinated that office’s initial response to the inquest policy revisions and represented Butts’ family during the first inquest called under the new procedures.

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Like Koehler, she sees values in the process even if outcomes don’t change because an outdated legal standard still applies. Moreover, she said that once the inquests catch up to the new law, the process will be more relevant.

“It is a temporal problem,” said Baker, who now works as legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. “Once we start hearing cases under the new legal standard for assessing the lawfulness of an officer-involved death, we will likely see a change in inquest outcomes. Juries will be asked different questions.”

Baker said that if one of her family members were killed by police, she would want an inquest held to examine the facts of the fatal encounter.

“I understand it is a struggle for a lot of people, but it can be helpful to have the evidence put forward in a way that is accessible to lay people and, most important, for them to be able to ask questions,” she said.

“Yes, it is traumatic. But not as traumatic as losing a loved one and not knowing what happened.”