KING COUNTY - The inquest process in King County continues to remain in limbo with a legal fight awaiting a judge in Superior Court in March. The city of Seattle and several other parties are suing King County Executive Dow Constantine over his handling of the fact-finding process.
An inquest is not a criminal proceeding but it can have criminal implications depending on what facts come out in front of a jury.
Legal experts say what’s unique about an inquest is that King County is one of the only ones in the country that routinely do it anytime a law enforcement officer is involved in a shooting. The facts are laid out to a jury and the public has access to all the details in hopes of transparency.
But now the inquests are on hold because the city of Seattle and others are accusing Constantine of arbitrarily changing the rules.
“The County Executive issued a moratorium on inquests beginning in 2017. In October 2018, Executive Constantine entered an Executive Order governing new inquest processes. At that point and until the first inquest was called in spring 2019, the City of Seattle attempted to and did engage with the Office of the King County Executive. The City had many questions about the legal framework and the scope of inquest changes. Many of these questions remained unanswered or were identified as “discretionary” decisions varying from inquest to inquest. Despite this uncertainty, the City entered the greatly altered inquest process in good faith. Throughout pre-inquest hearings that occurred over the course of several months, all interested parties, Inquest Administrator Spearman, and the inquest staff worked to interpret vague elements of the Executive Order, often left with more questions than answers,” Dan Nolte with City Attorney’s Office said.
People clamoring for police reform have criticized the inquest process leading to some big changes under Constantine, including expanding the scope of questions that can be asked of law enforcement officers. Also for the first time, family members of individuals killed in a police shooting could have legal representation.
“I think everybody agrees to have a family member be represented by an attorney is useful to the process to get all of the facts out,” Attorney Ted Buck said.
The case of Damarius Butts, the 19-year-old killed in a shootout with Seattle Police, was supposed to be the first one heard under the new rules back in December, but Buck, who is representing the officers involved in that shooting, says a last-minute order by Constantine is out of his authority.
“The only way an officer can be represented, the officer had to say ahead of time they were going to testify,” Buck said.
Municipalities like Auburn, Federal Way and Kent as well as the King County Sheriff’s Office are also challenging Constantine’s changes.
“This change in the inquest order that occurred two days beforehand utterly inexplicable. It put police officers in a position where they are afforded less rights in an inquest process than a criminal defendant would have, and nobody can explain why,” Buck said.
In response, Constantine released a statement to Q13 News on Friday that reads in part.
“This new Executive Order made significant reforms, and expanded the fact finding scope of inquests to help us better understand what happened, and continue to improve.
The point was not to put an individual officer on trial, but to make sure we asked the right questions, and took the appropriate actions. My goal was to give the public more confidence in the investigation of officer involved deaths, and provide law enforcement and policy-makers greater ability to reflect on how training and policies come into play in difficult and confusing situations, and how they may be improved.”
But Buck says Constantine is so out of line that inquests cannot move forward until the superior court weighs in. A hearing is scheduled for March 30.
“This does have a stink to it. That it's almost like we are trying to push officers down and treat them like something less than a full citizen,” Buck said.
Meanwhile, families of Damarius Butts and Isaiah Obet are also involved in challenging Constantine’s order, but for different reasons.
Attorney La Rond Baker, speaking on behalf of the Butts family, said in part that all officers should be required to testify and be questioned during an inquest:
“The Butts family sued to ensure that the inquest proceedings comply with state law the requires all individuals with knowledge about the death to testify. Clearly the officers involved in the shooting have knowledge about the death and their testimony is necessary for a full, fair and thorough investigation into the circumstances leading up to the death. In fact, in some cases the officers will be the only witnesses,” Baker said.
The Obet family also released a statement through their attorneys on Friday. Obet was killed in an Auburn Police shooting.
They believe that jurors should be able to determine criminal liability something that is not included in the process now.
Attorneys Amy Parker and Susan Sobel released this statement on behalf of Obet’s family.
“The Executive’s inquest process has the potential to be a useful tool to investigate police officer involved homicides of our community members- but some reforms are needed. Officers should be compelled to testify, their relevant use of force history should be automatically admissible, and the discovery process needs to be much more rigorous. Finally, it is important for the jury to determine whether there was criminal liability. Otherwise, the community is left not knowing whether officers acted lawfully when they killed one of their community members. Without all of these reforms the inquest process will fail to adequately address and investigate these homicides."