King County leaders make major changes to inquest process that deals with shootings involving law enforcement officers

SEATTLE -- Since 2017, the death of Charleena Lyles has been front and center fueling the debate of whether two Seattle Police officers could have avoided shooting and killing the 30 year-old North Seattle woman.

Seattle Police say she attacked the officers with a knife after reporting a burglary.

In January a judge dismissed the case against the two officer brought by family members saying the shooting was justified.

That explanation has never been enough for Charleena's family.

“The longer we wait the more trauma,” Charleena’s cousin Katrina Johnson said.

Charleena's case is one of 5 so far scheduled for an inquest in King County but starting now the way inquests are handled will be very different.

“For the first time families are going to be provided with representation at inquests,” Attorney Anita Khandelwal with the Public Defender’s Office said.

Family members will get more of a voice in the process represented for free with the Public Defender’s Office.

“The fact that we will be able to speak upon our loved one to humanize her often times our loved ones are dehumanized,” Johnson said.

Another major difference is how much emphasis jurors may hear regarding an officer's perception of fearing for their lives during a shooting incident

“It was designed to get away from this notion if the officer subjectively feared that the action was justified and then you in the media would report that this was a justified shooting,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said.

Rather than finding whether or not a shooting was justified, an inquests will focus more on whether or not officers acted in their line of training.

“Were they followed were they not followed,” Constantine said.

Charleena’s side says those specific guidelines on training have been hard to come by.

“Questions about what is appropriate to use a taser, questions of about when it's appropriate to fire a weapon,” Attorney Corey Guilmette said.

Johnson says she doesn’t know if the new system means a faster timeline for answers but retired judge Robert McBeth, who is now one of 3 retired judges brought in to oversee the process, said they would be as fair as possible.

“We recognized that inquests can be politically charged, we will endeavor to keep the process as fair as possible,” McBeth said.

King County District Judges will no longer sit in during inquest cases; instead, McBeth and the other judges will play a more administrative role.

King County prosecutors will also be excluded from laying out the case in front of jurors; instead they have brought an independent attorney to do that job.

County council has approved $700,000 to pay for inquests and all the changes in the 2019 to 2020 budget year.

The outcome of an inquest, however, cannot mandate changes within a department. An inquest is not a trial, simply a fact finding process of what happened during a shooting.

“It’s a lot more work than many other jurisdictions put into this but we think it’s important for the public to be able to see and have confidence,” Constantine said.

The case of Damarius Butts, 19, is the first scheduled for an inquest under the new system.

Butts is the teenager killed during a shootout with Seattle Police. SPD says the teenager shot at them after they tried to arrest him for a theft at a 7-11. Three officers were hurt in that incident including an officer who was shot in the face.

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