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Inquest into 2017 Seattle police shooting postponed until next year

Dow Constantine is seated at a table covered with a black tablecloth. He is signing paperwork. There are four people standing behind him.
King County
King County Executive Dow Constantine signs the executive order to restart inquests of officer-involved deaths in July 2021.

The first coroner’s inquest into a deadly shooting by police in King County under a new, expanded process has stalled amid concerns by all involved — the officers, the families of those killed and city officials — over the transparency and integrity of the proceedings.

The inquest into the 2017 killing by Seattle police officers of 19-year-old Damarius Butts — the first under a new system upheld this summer by the Washington Supreme Court — was scheduled to begin Dec. 6 and run for 11 days. But it has been postponed until Jan. 24, 2022.

The King County charter requires that a coroner’s inquest be held for any death involving law enforcement.

The Butts inquest was postponed after the parties filed a joint motion that expressed “serious and legitimate” apprehensions over rushed deadlines, access to witnesses and unwieldy orders issued by the inquest administrator.

Ghazal Sharifi, the section director for government affairs in the Seattle city attorney’s office, wrote in a Nov. 23 email obtained by The Seattle Times that she felt "deep disappointment in the purported integrity of this Inquest process.”

King County’s charter requires an inquest jury review all deaths caused by police. In 2021, the process was expanded to include the appointment of an attorney to represent the families of those who died at the hands of police; a review of a department’s policies over use of force; and will, for the first time in more than 40 years, include questions about whether the death involved criminality. In addition, officers will be required to testify, something they haven’t always done in the past.

“The Executive Order identifies the purpose of the inquest as a ‘full, fair and transparent review,’ ” of the deaths of individuals at the hands of law enforcement in King County, as required by the King County charter.

“However, for the last several weeks, the inquest program has jammed the parties with unreasonable deadlines, last minute requests, lengthy interviews of witnesses that should have been better streamlined and shifting and issuance rulings without any transparent justification for the same, without explanation to the parties of the basis for such a decision,” Sharifi wrote.

In a motion submitted on Nov. 23 to inquest administrator Michael Spearman, a retired King County Superior Court judge, attorneys for the involved police officers, the Butts family and the city jointly protested problematic issues that could muddle the process, including 131 questions the inquest jurors will be expected to answer in the verdict form.

The parties had asked that the inquest be postponed until March, and have said they may renew that request if the issues aren’t resolved.

The delay is a hitch in a new and significantly expanded inquest process sought by King County Executive Dow Constantine in response to complaints by families whose loved ones were killed by police and criticism that the process had over the years been tilted in favor of law enforcement.

King County is unique in Washington in that its charter requires an inquest jury review all deaths caused by police. Most other Washington counties rely on death investigations conducted by a coroner or a medical examiner.

Currently, there have been 52 law enforcement related deaths in King County since 2017 eligible for inquest, according to the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. Investigations into 32 of those have been completed and they have been reviewed and referred by the prosecutor’s office to Constantine’s office for inquest.

Butts was the first, and the others will be handled in chronological order, a process that could add years of uncertainty to the resolution of killings where families and police officers have already been waiting years for answers or resolution.

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