by Kelsey Hamlin
The King County Council unanimously passed a proposal Monday ensuring public defenders are made available to the families of people killed in officer-involved shootings during the inquest process.
King County initiates inquests after a police shooting, and is currently the only county in Washington to convene such inquiries. The fact-finding hearings feature six jurors who determine yes or no answers to attorneys’ questions after listening to testimonies. Such reviews are supposed to clarify exactly what happened during a specific police shooting. Attorneys or officials can then use these decisions to recommend or press charges. Rarely, however, are officers charged after these hearings.
Some named this new King County law “Sonia’s Law” after Sonia Joseph, who stood up during her son’s December 2017 inquest hearing to say it was unjust and walked out. Joseph did not have any legal representation for the inquest. She has since been at the forefront, along with Not This Time activists and Charleena Lyles’ family, advocating for a change in the system.
Joseph has spoken publicly about her situation and the need for change on numerous occasions, but this time was a little different.
“My son’s case was sacrificed,” she said. “His was the last case without legal representation. All these changes are happening as a ripple effect.”
Tears streamed down Joseph’s face, and her eyes grew red from irritation. She pursed her lips, “I did this,” she said. For a split second, her expression was not her usual tearful but calm, resting face as seen during her public testimonies. For a split second, Joseph’s face scrunched up in an expression of pride and disbelief while her eyes still screamed in pain.
A different, and new, testifier knows Joseph’s internal battle all too well: Raheim Brown Sr. His son was shot in the head, twice, by a California police officer. Three other bullets also struck his son.
During his son’s altercation with the officer, Raheim Brown Jr. stabbed the officer with a screwdriver, albeit in the officer’s Kevlar vest, the older Brown specified. The father does not absolve Brown Jr. of his actions but feels there was a better way to react than resorting to a gun.
“It was put basically that my son did everything wrong and they did nothing, and he lost his life because of his actions,” Brown Sr. said. “The way I look at it is, nobody acted in a way that could’ve resolved the situation… I understand they have a job, but they can abuse their authority.”
Ms. Rashard, otherwise known to many as “Queen Pearl” for her very frequent public testimonies, felt families should not only get legal representation but therapists as reparations.
The Seattle Community Police Commission, the Department of Public Defense (DPD), and Mothers for Police Accountability testified in support of the proposal. During the committee hearing, even King County prosecutor Dan Satterberg testified in support as well.
At one point, a former law enforcement officer, who recently has been contracted in Texas for police training, expressed support for the proposal but also reprimanded police conduct.
“Why did two grown men approach a pregnant woman and shoot her,” he asked, referring to Charleena Lyles. The man further explained that he trained police in New York, Florida, and Seattle, and military personnel in combat. “Where is the accountability for training officers? Since you guys are the Council, you are the frontline of this community. It’s on you. You guys have to cut the way for this whole community here. Because there is actually no excuse for hiring police officers who have PTSD from Iraq.”
Lyles’ sister, Monika Williams, said that without legal counsel, the Lyles family would “just be spinning in circles.” She went on to say that even having an attorney didn’t make things any less difficult and confusing.
“We’re in shock,” said Marilyn Covarrubias, whose son was shot and killed by Lakewood, WA police in April 2015. “We’re reeling from the pain and sorrow that we are going through and we really need someone to help us just to find our way through the legal process because we can’t really function.”
Brown Sr. said the death of your own child is something you don’t forget. He nonetheless wanted to be present so families knew they weren’t alone.
“It’s hard,” he said. “The only thing that would alleviate the pain would be if my son were still alive. We do have a voice and we have a right to be heard. We have a right to be treated like human beings instead of animals.”
Though he has only lived in Seattle for four days, Brown Sr. wished inquests existed in other places too.
“There’s times when I still wake up and I still see my son dying,” he said. “I wish we had this out there [in California], had someone to hear us better.”
Because the media ran with the story of his son using a screwdriver as a weapon, Brown Sr. often showed up to ridicule and harassment at work. Brown Sr. mentioned people pointing to his past to explain his son’s troubles. He called the civil lawsuit “frustrating and upsetting.”
“We had to go through everything over and over again,” Brown Sr. said. He has four other children. For a while, one of them would always ask Brown Sr. if they would see him again when he had to leave the house.
King County Councilmembers Larry Gossett, Rod Dembowski, Dave Upthegrove, and Jeanne Kohl-Welles said the testimony moved them and that it was compelling.
“This, to me, represents a leveling of the playing field,” Kohl-Welles said. “This is the logical thing to do; it’s the decent thing to do. I cannot even fathom what these families are going through, how absolutely devastating it has to be. And to not really know the process and have the inability to have legal representation is just a horrible, unacceptable thing.”
Unanimously, the council moved to adopt an amendment to change the language of the proposal to keep it open to the possibility of holding inquests outside a courtroom. This amendment will be determined after the Review Committee, per King County Executive Dow Constantine’s orders, reviews the process and makes its recommendations. This review is expected to take place in March.
Councilmember Claudia Balducci said even with these measures the inquest process “is a pretty unsatisfying process.” She said the questions asked and answers given “don’t really resolve the fundamental concerns that people bring into the room…. They want to know why…how it can’t happen again.” She said there still needs to be a discussion about the use of deadly force and hopes to see the passing of “Sonia’s Law” as a springboard.
The Lyles family and the families of Tommy Le, Isaiah Obet, Damarius Butts, and Eugene Nelson all await these recommendations so they, too, can go through the inquest process. This time, however, they will have pre-paid legal representation. This change is afforded through an already-established DPD fund.
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: Sonia Joseph during Monday’s council meeting [Photo: Kelsey Hamlin]