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King County Revisits Inquest Process For Shootings By Police

Will James
A boy lights a candle at a June 20, 2017, vigil for Charleena Lyles, who was shot and killed by Seattle Police.

King County is unique in the state because it requires an inquest to be held whenever there is a fatal shooting by police. But the process can be confusing and controversial, with some critics arguing that it's biased toward law enforcement.

There is renewed interest in revisiting the inquest process. County Executive Dow Constantine put pending inquests on hold Monday until a committee studying reform of the process can issue a report.

KNKX law and justice reporter Paula Wissel talked about some of the confusion surrounding inquests with Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick. Below is a transcript of their conversation, edited for clarity.

Kirsten Kendrick: Paula, the inquest process has been around for awhile, so why the attention now?

Paula Wissel: It has been, but there have been several high-profile cases just in the last year. We had the death of Charleena Lyles, the African American mother shot by police in North Seattle in June. They said that she was threatening them with a knife. Just another case was Tommy Le, shot also in June in Burien by police who thought he was holding a knife, and it turned out later to be a pen.

But the other thing is just the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, protests here and around the country really drawing attention to the killing of particularly people of color by police.

And then [there's] the fact that in this state, the inquests haven't really led to any charges against police because state law makes it virtually impossible. You really have to have evidence of malice by the police.

KK: Well, there is some confusion about the purpose of inquests. How do they actually look?

PW: Well, yeah, because there's a jury; it's in a courtroom; there's a judge, but it's not a trial. It's really a fact-finding process.

Like I said, there's a jury, but they're not there to determine whether it was justified or unjustified. They answer a series of questions. It may include 'Did the officer feel his or her life was threatened?' but it does not come up with putting blame. Then it's up to the prosecutor after that to decide if the officer will be charged.

KK: What kind of changes could we see with these inquests?

PW: One thing that could happen right away — because this is what the King County Council is considering—they have a proposal that was voted out of the law and justice committee yesterday [Tuesday]. That would provide an attorney to the families who lost a loved one. Because you have a taxpayer-funded attorney for the police, you have the prosecutor there, but the families they say that they're left just in the dark. By having an attorney with them, then they can help craft the questions that go to the jury.

[King County District Court Presiding Judge Donna Tucker] says that she is concerned by having this happen people will see it more as a trial and then again be disappointed with what the outcome is. 

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