A federal judge has for the fourth time dismissed attempts by the two Seattle police officers who shot and killed Che Taylor to sue City Councilmember Kshama Sawant for defamation and outrage after she publicly called Taylor’s death a “brutal murder.”
Officers Michael Spaulding and Scott Miller first filed their lawsuit in 2017, alleging Sawant’s statements, while not identifying the officers by name, were “of and concerning” the officers and damaged their reputations. The case was initially filed in state court but refiled in federal court the following year.
U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman said in an order posted Tuesday that the officers have now been given four chances, through amended pleadings and an appeal to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, to prove their allegations but have failed, and that any further efforts would harm Sawant. She dismissed the complaint with prejudice, meaning it cannot be refiled.
Daniel Brown, the attorney representing the officers, said the officers will appeal again.
“The trial judge erred again and the forthcoming appeal to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals (yet again) will confirm the judge’s error,” he said in an email when asked for comment.
Sawant’s attorney, Dmitri Iglitzin, said he isn’t surprised but pointed out that the 9th Circuit has already affirmed Pechman’s earlier dismissal.
Sawant in a statement called the ruling “a victory for the Black Lives Matter movement, working people, socialists, and my Council office.
“The police lawsuit against my office is just one in a series of attacks by the ruling class, whose interests the police defend under this deeply unequal system,” she said.
Spaulding and Miller were performing surveillance outside a Wedgwood home on Feb. 21, 2016, when Taylor arrived. One of the officers said he saw a handgun on Taylor’s hip. Taylor left the area, but when he returned a short time later, the officers, in plain clothes and armed with a shotgun and a rifle, approached him after he had exited a car to arrest Taylor for being a felon in possession of a gun. The officers shot him, they said, when they saw him reach for what they believed was the gun.
However, evidence developed during an inquest and through a civil lawsuit filed by Taylor’s family raised questions about whether Taylor was armed and why he would have been reaching for a gun he wasn’t carrying. The only weapon found at the scene, a handgun, was found under debris beneath the passenger seat of the vehicle Taylor had been in.
The city settled the family’s lawsuit earlier this month for $1.5 million.
During a rally five days after the shooting, Sawant decried the shooting, calling it a “brutal … and blatant murder at the hands of police.”
She made several similar comments, but never singled out Spaulding or Miller by name.
“Taken in their full quoted context, the broad statements do not single out individual police officers or speak to labeling specific officers as ‘murderers,’” Pechman wrote. “The Court finds that leave to amend would be futile … and further litigation prejudicial to Defendant.”
Pechman’s initial dismissal of the officers’ claims in March of 2019 resulted in an appeal to the 9th Circuit, where a three-judge panel determined that Pechman was right to dismiss the lawsuit but wrong to rule that the officers could not attempt to address the legal deficiencies by filing an amended complaint.
The case was sent back to Pechman, who considered the original complaint and three amendments. None of them show that Sawant’s statements were directed at the two officers specifically or that others in the community would come to that conclusion on their own, the judge found.
The city of Seattle is funding Sawant’s defense in the case; Tuesday’s order did not address attorney’s fees.