by Kelsey Hamlin
Monday, King County Executive Dow Constantine announced all police shooting inquests are paused while the Review Committee considers reforms and submits recommendations expected in March.
The pause affects five pending inquests for Isaiah Obet, Damarius Butts, Eugene Nelson, Tommy Le and Charleena Lyles. Both Le’s and Lyles’ deaths received significant community backlash from Seattle’s Asian Pacific Islander community and Seattle’s Black community respectively.
Corey Guilmette, on behalf of the Lyles family, said in a press release that this move satisfies the needs of Lyles’ family members.
“Reform must start by designing a proceeding that answers the questions most important to Charleena’s family,” he wrote. These questions involve why Lyles was killed and what the officers could have done instead.
Ultimately, the Review Committee will reexamine the inquest procedure to determine what, if any, changes could or should be made to improve the process both for the public and the affected parties.
“Reform must also include publicly-appointed counsel for families, which is the only way to ensure inquest proceedings are fair and balanced,” Guillmette wrote. Tuesday, King County Councilmembers Jeanne Kohl-Welles, Rod Dembowski, and Dave Upthegrove will introduce legislation ensuring all families have the legal representation they need to effectively participate in inquest proceedings.
King County District Court Judge Donna Tucker also declined to preside at any future inquests. District Court Judges act as coroners and conduct inquests.
While the decision puts Lyles’ case on hold, Guillmette called it an “extraordinary step.” He hopes it means her family will ultimately be able to participate in an otherwise inaccessible process.
Inquests act as fact-finding hearings conducted before a six-member jury. The review is supposed to cement what exactly happened at a specific police shooting. Attorneys or officials can then use these decisions to recommend or press charges. Rarely, however, are officers charged in the aftermath of these hearings.
Since 2005, police killings in Washington rose dramatically, but only one officer has ever been criminally charged, according to The Seattle Times. That same case is the only one dealing with police killings brought forward in a Washington court in over 30 years.
During a press conference for Initiative 940, which would change police practices and standards, Katrina Johnson, Lyles’ cousin, said she’ll grieve some day but right now she wants justice.
“I’m not anti-police, I’m anti-bad behavior,” she said.
Alexis Dunlap was also present that evening. Her son, Chance Gittens, was shot and killed by police Jan. 2017.
“The whole process does nothing for the family. It had nothing to do with my son,” she said of inquests. “All we are left with is the memories and the pain. We have to change this whole system. It just keeps happening and it’s just like ‘oops! Oh, sorry.’ Sitting in on the inquest…I can see it in their eyes, they know they messed up. They just won’t admit it.”
Tuesday, families of those shot by police will speak at the King County Courthouse at 1:30 for the Law and Justice Committee.
Kelsey Hamlin is a freelance reporter with various Seattle publications. She graduated with interdisciplinary Honors, a B.A. in journalism and a minor in Law, Societies & Justice from the University of Washington. Hamlin served as President and VP for the UW’s Society of Professional Journalists over the past two years. Find her on Twitter @ItsKelseyHamlin or see more of her articles on her website.
Featured image by Sharon H. Chang