Officer Involved Shooting Rekindles Questions About Inquests

Jul 6, 2017

The death of Charleena Lyles in an encounter with Seattle police will likely result in an inquest.

Police shot Lyles in her apartment last month. Officers said she threatened them with a knife. In Washington state, only King County holds inquests to investigate officer-involved shootings.

Attorneys for police officers and for members of the public agree on one thing: inquests are stressful for everyone involved. Derrick Isackson is a lawyer in Seattle who represents police officers.

“Any time that an officer has had to use force that resulted in someone’s death it’s very difficult for that officer,” Isackson said.  “So they’re essentially having to re-live that in open court in front of the public in front of a jury and they have to provide them with that information. And it’s having to re-live it.”

Knowing questions of criminal and civil liability are still looming. But this replay of events is precisely why King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said inquests are valuable.

“The investigation is revealed in open court where anybody can watch it. I will defend that process as superior to one that happens entirely on paper,” Satterberg said.

At the inquest, a jury answers questions about the circumstances of the person’s death, including whether officers feared for their safety. The findings go to the prosecutor, and may be used in civil lawsuits.

But families of the deceased often find the inquest itself too limited.

At the inquest for Muckleshoot tribal member Renee Davis last May, her family wanted to ask how deputies are trained to check on people who are suicidal. But attorney Bree Black Horse said the judge made it clear that topic was not on the table.

At the outset and at the end, the court told the family, this isn’t going to be a satisfactory process,” Black Horse said.  “The questions the family really wants answered are more appropriate to a civil suit.”

A lawsuit they’re now preparing to file. But some families can’t afford to bring a civil suit. Others say they want to help change policing and prevent future deaths.

Pierce Murphy directs Seattle’s Office of Professional Accountability, which investigates complaints against Seattle police. He said SPD does look at training and prevention. But it’s behind closed doors.

“That’s the force review process that has been created as a result of the settlement agreement between the Department of Justice and the city of Seattle,” Murphy said. “Unfortunately, that process is not a public process.”

Attorney Corey Guilmette represented the family of Che Taylor at a recent inquest. Taylor was killed in an encounter with Seattle police last year. Guilmette wants inquests to consider broader questions.

“I think a lot of people think an inquest is to determine whether a shooting was justified or whether a killing was justified, and it really does not do that and cannot do that,” he said.

Guilmette said another frustration he had was there is no right to appeal a judge’s limitations, and no way to challenge an officer’s statement if lawyers believe it’s incorrect.

“We can’t do anything about it. There is no opening statement, there are no closing statements, we can’t call another witness to rebut what they said. So it just stands,” he said.

But police attorney Derrick Isackson said if the inquest process is changed dramatically, it may not serve a purpose anymore. He said inquests originated in a time when it was hard to get the facts of a case. Now, he says, victims’ families could file public records requests and proceed with their own lawsuits.

“The reality is, aren’t you just then moving into a civil liability issue at that point,” Isackson said. “You’re trying to lay blame as opposed to, ‘listen, let’s just look at what the facts are.’ And that’s the idea of the inquest process from my perspective.”

Bree Black Horse said ultimately Renee Davis’ family found the inquest process useful. But that’s largely because the family and the Muckleshoot tribe were able to hire lawyers to represent them. There’s no provision to appoint public defenders if a family can’t afford that.