Councilmember Questions Fairness of Inquest Process

by Alex Garland

Seattle City Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez opened Wednesday’s meeting of the Committee for Safe Communities by recognizing the family of Che Taylor, the 46 year old black male fatally shot by two Seattle police officers on Feb 21.

The public comments that followed were brief, mainly focusing on Council Bill 118651, which deals with open air tour buses and police reform in the aftermath of Taylor’s death.

Andre Taylor, Che’s brother, expressed hope that reform could be found through police accountability.

“We believe that there are some situations in policing itself that maybe need some accountability for some of the things that are going on here and across the nation. Our hopes are that something is resolved, something is changed, and that we are courageous enough as a city, to do something different here.

That’s what my hopes are, that’s what the family’s hopes are. I’m happy to see the Native American community here, I love them. They have the same type of issue with what they’re experiencing with Jack and some of the other people who have been harmed. I believe that something can be done. I believe that there are some good people here in Seattle, Washington that want justice for all people and maybe for my brother also,” Taylor told an attentive committee.

Andre Taylor
Andre Taylor address the Committee for Safe Communities during Wednesday’s briefing. Photo Credit: Alex Garland

Councilmember Gonzalez then gave an explanation of the first agenda item: the King County Prosecutors Office executive inquest policy, which deals with the probing of the causes and circumstances of civilian deaths via a public hearing, whenever those deaths involve members of on duty law enforcement, such as the case of Che Taylor.

Gonzalez explained that under the policy, investigations fall under the jurisdiction of the King County Prosecutors Office, which in turn falls under the authority of King County Executive Dow Constantine.

“Che Taylor was shot and killed by officers of the Seattle Police Department (SPD). To the Taylor’s and members of our African American community, I want to acknowledge the loss that you feel,” said Gonzalez, directed her comments towards Taylor’s family.

The councilmember went on to explain that SPD’s Force Investigation Team (FIT) is currently scrutinizing the actions of the officers involved in Taylor’s shooting.

FIT was created in response to the consent decree mandated by the Department of Justice requiring mandatory reforms of Seattle’s police department.

Once again acknowledging Taylor’s family, Gonzalez stated that the committee wanted to know what actions would follow once FIT concluded its investigation, since the County will be responsible for further examination into Che Taylor’s shooting with its inquest.

Mark Larson of the King County Prosecutors Office then took center stage, following with a presentation comprised of a “brief history lesson” of the inquest process in King County.

The process, which according to Larson is commonly used in King County relative to other counties in the state, is an executive order describing the procedures the King County Prosecutors office should engage in while carrying out an inquest, which is a public hearing.

While the inquest takes place in a courtroom, with lawyers, witnesses, a judge, and jurors, there are no opening statements, closing arguments, or a burden of proof.

In fact, there is a very limited scope which decides what questions are asked and heard by the jurors during it.

For the inquest, six jurors are pulled from the same jury pool used for criminal and civil trials, and are usually chosen in “less than half a day.” According to Larson, the judges play a different function than they would during criminal trials.

“Behind the scenes, the judge should have read the interviews. The judge is really involved in determining and setting the scope, what are the fair questions, how far into these facts do we go? The judge makes a determination and can hear from the parties that will ultimately make that decision. Their role is to guide and ensure this process is fair, that it’s accurate, and that the scope is appropriate.”

The prosecuting attorney essentially acts as an arm of the court during the process, questioning witnesses subpoenaed by the judge.

“We have a role of bringing forward those witnesses that have been identified by the court to be pertinent and each of those witnesses is subject to examination by each of the representative, so everyone has a chance to ask their questions,” Larson said.

An interesting line of questioning arose around the role of jury interrogatories during the inquest process.

Interrogatories task during the process is to “deal with questions of fact,” or verifiable evidence during an officer involved shooting, which excludes addressing whether any person or agency is civilly or criminally liable for it.

Council,ember Gonzales then sought clarification on just how those “questions of fact” came to be.

“I’m a little confused as to how those questions are generated and who is guiding that process and for what purpose?”

Larson’s responded that a judge determined the proper scope for questions directed to the jurors during the inquest, after consulting with legal representatives for both family members of the deceased and the officers involved in the shooting.

Gonzales then wanted to know, what sort of provisions were made during the inquest process for families of the deceased who could not afford legal representation.

According to Larson, it’s not infrequent for family’s to be without legal representation during the inquest, and that the prosecuting attorney’s office will make an effort to make family’s aware of the interrogatories procedure.

He added that, “If [families] choose not to have representation, they don’t have representation.”

Unsatisfied with the answer, Gonzales stated that the policy failed to take into account those family’s who lacked legal representation because of financial constraints, but were interested in participating in shaping questions asked by the jury interrogatories, along with selection of the jury itself.

She asked how the inquest process was fair for such families.

Larson replied “You should ask the executive. All I can tell you is my experience is we have families that are not represented, who come have an experience where they hear witnesses, hear from people who are there…and they’re not necessarily dissatisfied.”

Tim Burgess
Tim Burgess looks on during the public comment portion of Wednesday’s meeting. Photo credit: Alex Garland

Councilmember Tim Burgess, who had mostly been quiet during the proceedings, rephrased the question “What if the family wants to be part of the process and wants to be represented by council, but they say to you, I can’t afford a lawyer?”

Larson’s reply, “There is no provision for not having council.”