by Paul Kiefer
(This article previously appeared on PubliCola and has been reprinted under an agreement)
The Washington State Supreme Court sided with the families of people killed by police officers in a unanimous decision Thursday, restoring reforms to King County’s inquest process that have stalled since 2018 under pressure from law enforcement agencies.
The ruling brings a close to a lawsuit filed against King County Executive Dow Constantine last year by the families of Damarius Butts, Isaiah Obet, Charleena Lyles and seven other people killed by law enforcement officers in the county in 2017. It also opens the door for inquests — a type of fact-finding hearing in which a jury reviews the details of a death and decides who is responsible — to resume in King County after a four-year hiatus.
Tiffany Rogers, Charleena Lyles’s sister, told PubliCola the four-year legal battle was exhausting for her and other family members of people killed by police. “It was painful, and it was painful for a long time, but we’re doing this so that other families don’t have to,” she said.
King County first overhauled its inquest process in 2018, when, under pressure from police accountability groups, Constantine implemented a slate of changes intended to improve transparency and give victims’ families a say in what information inquest juries hear. The changes allowed attorneys representing victims’ families to take part in inquest hearings for the first time and empowered juries to determine not only what happened in a police shooting, but whether the officers involved complied with their department’s policies and training.
Before announcing the reforms, Constantine had placed a hold on three pending inquests into the deaths of Butts, Obet, and Lyles. But when reforms took effect and the county began preparing to start the three inquests, a problem emerged: Under the executive order, the officers’ attorneys couldn’t participate if the officers themselves refused to testify. When the officers involved in Butts’ death declined to testify, the inquest couldn’t move forward.
The families filed a lawsuit in 2020, hoping to fill the gap in Constantine’s reforms by compelling the officers to testify. The families also called for another change to inquest procedures: allowing jurors to consider whether the officers involved in a shooting broke the law. “The inquest can be a useful tool to investigate police killings of community members, but the panel must answer whether the officer committed a crime for the process to have any teeth,” said Amy Parker, an attorney with King County’s Department of Public Defense who represented Obet’s family.
Meanwhile, several law enforcement agencies — the Seattle Police Department, the King County Sheriff’s Office and municipal police departments in Auburn, Renton, Kent and Federal Way — also sued Constantine, aiming to invalidate all of the recent changes to the inquest process. According to the agencies’ attorneys, the inquest reforms already underway in King County would put police officers at a serious disadvantage when facing a jury. The lawsuits forced the county to suspend the new reforms and put a stay on any new or ongoing inquests.
When the case came before King County Superior Court Judge Julie Spector in July 2020, the law enforcement agencies prevailed; Spector ruled that Constantine’s reforms threatened officers’ rights to counsel and struck down most of the changes to the inquest process. By that point, SPD had backed out of the lawsuit under pressure from members of the City Council and the public, leaving the other agencies to carry on the suit.
The state supreme court entirely reversed the course of the case on Thursday, dismissing Judge Spector’s ruling as “wrong as a matter of law.”
Instead, the justices sided squarely with the families of Butts, Obets and Lyles. In their ruling, they concluded that all of the reforms supported by the families, including the changes introduced in 2018 and the reforms the families sought in their lawsuit, can move forward. In fact, the court noted that state law not only allows, but requires, inquest juries to consider whether an officer committed a crime.
Additionally, the ruling will allow the county to compel testimony from officers involved in shootings, though the officers will still be able to invoke Fifth Amendment rights in response to questions from attorneys.
La Rond Baker, an attorney with King County’s Department of Public Defense who argued the case before the state supreme court, is celebrating the decision as an opportunity to transform the inquest process into a more transparent path to accountability for police killings. “Now we’re going to have a system that allows the community access to more detailed information about what happens when law enforcement officers kill community members—and the names of the people involved,” she said. “It’s a big win for police accountability.”
And families of people killed by law enforcement will also have another new leg up in the inquest process: Going forward, because of a King County Charter amendment passed last year, the county will provide attorneys for the families of people killed by police. Since 2017, the county’s backlog of inquests has grown to at least 36 cases, including roughly a dozen involving Seattle police officers, like the killing of 57-year-old Terry Caver by SPD officers in May 2020.
Baker said that while the delays will present a challenge for attorneys arguing before an inquest jury, she doesn’t expect those challenges to be insurmountable. “Of course, anything that’s been delayed for four years will have its problems, but there isn’t likely to be much spoilage or loss of evidence,” she said. “People’s memories may get spotty over time but most people will remember the details of a use of deadly force that they witnessed.”
King County has not yet scheduled an inquest into Lyles’ death. When the inquest happens, jurors will be asked to consider whether SPD officers Jason Anderson and Steven McNew committed a crime when they shot and killed Lyles in her Magnuson Park home in 2017. The jury’s decision won’t be binding, but it will allow King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg to decide whether to file charges against the officers.
PubliCola has reached out to the King County Police Officers’ Guild — the union representing most of the sworn officers with the King County Sheriff’s Office — about their response to the ruling.
Paul Faruq Kiefer is a journalist, historian, and born-and-bred Seattleite. He has published work with KUOW, North Carolina Public Radio, and The Progressive magazine, and he is currently working on a podcast for KUAF in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Paul reports on police accountability for PubliCola.
📸 Featured Image: A portrait of Charleena Lyles on Capitol Hill in June 2020. (Flickr: Derek Simeone; reproduced under a Creative Commons license).
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