Two Seattle police officers were justified when they shot and killed Charleena Lyles and had no other reasonable alternative when they pulled the trigger, a unanimous King County coroner’s jury decided Wednesday after a two-week inquest into her 2017 death.
The decision was met with an anguished outburst by Lyles’ father, Charles Lyles, who shouted, “[Expletive] you! [Expletive] you! You killed my daughter!” as he was expelled from the courtroom by inquest administrator Michael Spearman, who apologized to the six-member jury.
“You’ll answer some day!” Lyles yelled. “You’ll answer to God!”
The two police officers, Jason Anderson and Steven McNew, left the inquest by a back door and through a loading dock as angry Lyles family members crowded the hallway outside.
Karen Koehler, the family’s lawyer, said in a statement that the family “rejects the ultimate findings from the inquest jury today.”
“During the … inquest proceeding a solid and unflinching blue wall justified each and every action of its officers,” Koehler said. The process was “strictly narrowed” to focus on the officers’ state of mind and not Lyles’ long history of mental illness.
“The family does not blame the jury for its decision,” Koehler said. “SPD’s policies, practices and procedures are designed specifically to allow an officer to shoot and kill a person in mental crisis with a paring knife.”
Lyles, she said, “called police for help, went into a mental crisis, and was shot dead. The findings of the inquest are nothing for the SPD to be proud about,” she said.
The jury responded to 123 questions and not all responses were unanimous. All agreed however that Anderson failed to follow SPD policy requiring him to carry a Taser when he responded to Lyles’ apartment the morning of June 18, 2017, to investigate her report of a burglary.
King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, who has been reluctant to file criminal charges against an officer in police-involved death cases before an inquest is held, said Wednesday that he has had a senior criminal deputy prosecutor monitoring the proceedings.
He called the details revealed through the inquest process “heartbreaking. Charleena Lyles’ death is a tragedy.
“In the coming weeks, we will review all of the admissible evidence that was presented at the inquest and the jury’s answers to each of the interrogatories and make a final charging decision,” he said.
The inquest jury was divided on some questions dealing with what the officers knew of Lyles’ mental health issues and highlighted that Lyles, during early questioning about the burglary, kept moving her hands in and out of her pockets without the officers telling her to stop.
Police are generally trained to watch an individual’s hands at all times, even if that person isn’t suspected of a crime.
Two of the six jurors said they couldn’t decide whether the officers reasonably believed Lyles posed a threat before she pulled the knife.
However, the jury unanimously found that use of a Taser in the close confines of her apartment, as she advanced on the officers with a knife, would not have been appropriate or effective.
Anderson and McNew declined to comment Wednesday, citing SPD’s media policy. Their attorney, Karen Cobb, said they sympathized with the Lyles family. Cobb said the officers and their families have been impacted by the proceedings and scrutiny as well.
“This has been difficult,” she said. “But they appreciate and support the jury and the process.”
Lyles, a pregnant, 30-year-old Black mother of four with a history of mental illness, had called police that June morning to report a burglary, although evidence at the inquest would show no burglary had occurred and surveillance video showed she had never left her apartment.
Anderson, who had been a Seattle officer for about two years, was dispatched, and when he arrived at the Brettler Family Place Apartments near Magnuson Park, where Lyles and her children lived in a fourth-floor unit, he made a routine computer check that showed Lyles was well-known to police and had an “officer safety warning” attached to her name.
The warning said that two weeks earlier during a domestic violence call, Lyles had cornered an officer in her apartment with a large pair of shears. She had said she was going to “morph into a wolf” and talked about cloning her daughter. That incident ended peacefully, with Lyles taken into custody.
Anderson, per Seattle police procedures, asked for a backup on that June day officer even though a “cold burglary” was usually a one-officer response.
Steven McNew, a 17-year veteran, responded. As the pair walked to the apartment, it was decided that McNew would be the “cover” officer, an observer there for security, and that Anderson would take the report. Their only discussion about how to handle the call was to “not let her get behind us,” according to an audio recording of the incident captured by microphones synced to Anderson’s police cruiser’s dash camera.
Both officers are white, and the shooting of Lyles was among a series of law-enforcement killings of Black people in the area in 2017 that spurred community protest and reforms to the King County inquest process. Lyles’ death also helped put a local focus on police reform and the Black Lives Matter movement.
King County has long been alone in the state in requiring a jury to examine all law enforcement-related deaths. The inquest process is a public inquiry designed to explore the facts — around Lyles’ death, in this case; whether police followed proper procedures; and if “criminality” was involved.
SPD has cleared the officers of wrongdoing. Both remain with the department.
For the first several minutes in Lyles’ apartment, the police call was routine. Lyles said what had been taken, and Anderson asked questions. Children could be heard in the background. Then, about four minutes in, Lyles’ demeanor changed, according to the officers’ testimony and recorded audio.
Anderson said he looked up from his notepad and saw Lyles lunging at him with a small knife. He said he jumped back and had to suck in his stomach to avoid being stabbed. McNew said he drew his Glock service handgun. Both officers could be heard yelling “Get back! Get back!” while Lyles yelled obscenities and “Do it!”
McNew was in the apartment’s small kitchen, with nowhere to go. Anderson recalled being backed up against a door, although video would later show him retreating into the hallway through the apartment’s open door as the shots where fired.
Five of the six jurors concluded McNew was trapped and could have been stabbed if he tried to move out of the kitchen. The sixth juror couldn’t decide, and answered “unknown” to the question.
Both officers said they had no choice but to shoot Lyles, claiming she represented a deadly threat that could not have been neutralized any other way, even though McNew called “Taser!” at one point and evidence showed the device could have been effective. Anderson was supposed to be carrying one, but had left it in his locker that day because its battery was dead. He was later disciplined for that failure.
Two of the jurors concluded that two of Lyles’ children in the living room were in danger of being struck by a bullet when the officers fired.
The jurors unanimously concluded that Anderson was standing in the open doorway of the apartment when he fired, a point confirmed by a surveillance video camera in the apartment’s hallway.
Anderson testified he was up against a closed door when he fired.
The Lyles family last year settled a civil lawsuit against the officers and the Seattle Police Department for $3.5 million.
Both officers also had batons and pepper spray, but said those would not have been effective at stopping the 5-foot-3, 110-pound Lyles and that their use would have put them too close to Lyles and endangered their lives.
Both officers fired almost simultaneously, striking Lyles seven times, with three of the rounds hitting her from behind. The medical examiner said two of the wounds would have been almost immediately fatal — one ripping through her superior vena cava, the large vein that returns the body’s blood to the heart, and another in her stomach that tore the deep femoral. Another bullet struck her in the uterus; she was 15 weeks’ pregnant.
Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, in a statement Wednesday, called Lyles’ death “tragic.”
“My heart is with the Lyles family and so many others in our community who have said loudly and clearly that death is not an acceptable outcome for a person in mental health crisis who calls for help,” the mayor said.
“I continue to believe we are asking the wrong questions — not whether the use of lethal force was justified, but whether it was necessary,” Harrell said. “Could we have ensured officer safety and saved a life?”
The six-member inquest jury — down from its original eight members because of a COVID outbreak that also infected two of the attorneys — heard seven days of testimony, 19 witnesses and considered 56 exhibits, including the audio of the shooting, photographs of Lyles dead in the hallway of her apartment and autopsy photos of her wounds.
The inquest was punctuated with tense moments, including an incident that drew condemnation from her family and a warning from inquest administrator Spearman. SPD sent members of its SWAT team to the Judge Patricia H. Clark Children and Family Justice Center after McNew walked through a group of Lyles’ family members outside, drawing taunts and obscenities.
Both officers offered emotional testimony, with McNew recalling the Lyles children in the moments after the shooting: how he picked up a baby who had crawled over to his mother’s body and lay on her chest, and a second child, a boy, coming out of a bedroom to say, “You shot my mom.”
Both officers also faced a blistering examination by Koehler, the Lyles family attorney, who relentlessly attacked their narrative that they had no way of knowing Lyles might turn on them — despite her history of mental illness and the incident 13 days earlier — and that they had no alternative to using deadly force, either with less-lethal tools or their claimed inability to retreat from the apartment or de-escalate the situation.
The inquest into Lyles’ death was postponed for years because of revisions to the coroner’s inquest process — which is unique to King County — and police legal challenges to those changes, culminating in a unanimous Washington Supreme Court opinion that reinstated an expanded inquest process and recognized that its previous incarnation had been biased toward police and detrimental to the families of the victims of police violence.
Before 2017, no police officer in King County had been charged for a death in 30 years. Those inequities were evident in 2017, when Lyles’ death was one of a grim string of 11 police shootings, several involving young Black people. That year also hosted a pair of questionable inquests into two of those deaths — Des Moines teen Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens and Kent’s Giovonn Joseph-McDade — which led King County Executive Dow Constantine to halt inquests and impanel a task force to review and suggest changes to the system.
There are at least 56 inquests pending in King County, all but a handful involving police shootings. The others involve deaths in correctional facilities.
The next inquest, scheduled to start Aug. 22, involves the Oct. 30, 2017, shooting death of Robert Lightfeather by Federal Way police.
Seattle Times staff reporter David Gutman contributed to this report.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story included a photo caption that listed the wrong date for Charleena Lyles’ death.