Tuesday, August 16, 2022
Aug. 16, 2022

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5 years after Seattle police killed Charleena Lyles, long-delayed inquest into her death begins

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SEATTLE — Five years ago, two Seattle police officers responded to a report of a burglary at an apartment complex near Magnuson Park. The caller was a 30-year-old Black mother, Charleena Lyles, who had long lived with mental illness and was known to police.

Within minutes, the officers, Jason Anderson and Steven McNew, shot and killed Lyles after, they claim, she cornered them in her kitchen, brandishing a small knife she pulled from her pocket. Lyles, who was four months pregnant, was shot seven times as her children watched.

An officer had to pull one of the children off Lyles as medics tried to treat her wounds.

On Tuesday, after years of delays, the circumstances of Lyles’ death will be reviewed and considered by a seven-member coroner’s jury — a long-promised airing of the who, what, why and how surrounding her controversial killing. The two-week inquest promises to be a stress test of the county’s revised inquest system and only the second time a coroner’s jury has been impaneled in King County since inquests were halted the same year Lyles was killed.

The process was revised and implemented over the objections of several police agencies, including the Seattle Police Department, after county officials concluded it was unfair and tilted too heavily in favor of law enforcement. Before 2017, no inquest jury had questioned the outcome of a death at the hands of police in decades.

King County’s inquest process is unique in the state and requires all law enforcement-related deaths be reviewed by a jury of at least four people tasked with making factual findings about the case, including the circumstances of the killing and whether it was a crime — and if so, who’s responsible.

Over the years, however, the inquiries narrowed. A 1971 finding against an officer in the death of a Black man led to changes that decidedly favored police: The juries’ inquiries were often limited to asking whether the officer feared for their life.

As a result, no inquest jury has questioned an officer’s decision to kill someone in the past 51 years.

A grim string of 11 police shootings in 2017, including the killing of Lyles, and a pair of questionable inquests into two of those deaths — Des Moines teen Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens and Kent man Giovonn Joseph-McDade — led King County Executive Dow Constantine to halt inquests and impanel a task force to review and suggest changes to the system.

Constantine’s goal: level the playing field by giving victims’ families a larger role in the process, ensuring fairness and transparency.

Among the resulting changes were the County Council’s decisions to remove the inquests from the court system and ensure that the families of those killed are represented by an attorney.

Several police agencies throughout the county, including Seattle police, challenged those changes in court. And while those challenges were pending, county voters in 2020 overwhelmingly voted to adopt the changes and further expand the inquest inquiries.

Then, in 2021, the Washington Supreme Court voted unanimously to reinstate the King County system over the objections of most of the county’s police agencies, cementing Constantine’s changes and stating clearly that police must participate in the process.

In the past, involved officers often refused to testify and sometimes did not even attend inquests reviewing their uses of deadly force.

At least 56 inquests remain pending, according to the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, and the Lyles case is only the second heard since Constantine paused inquests in 2018.

In April, an eight-member jury found a trio of Seattle police officers acted within the law and department policy when they shot and killed 19-year-old Damarius Butts following a 2017 armed robbery at a First Avenue convenience store. Three officers were shot and one was seriously injured in an exchange of gunfire with Butts outside the downtown Federal Building.

While inquests are intended to be a fact-finding mechanism and nonadversarial, the lead-up to the Lyles inquest has been contentious, with attorneys for the officers, Police Department, city and family arguing over everything from media and public access to the makeup of the seven-member jury, which was chosen last week.

In that hearing, family attorney Karen Koehler — who last year negotiated a $3.5 million settlement for the Lyles family in a wrongful-death lawsuit against the city — asked Inquest Administrator Michael Spearman, a retired Court of Appeals judge, to bypass two white prospective jurors to ensure the Lyles jury included at least one Black member. The current seven-person panel includes two Asians, a Latino and four white people.

“The appearance of fairness is not served unless there is a Black person on this jury,” Koehler argued.

The issue of race in the Lyles inquest cannot be avoided, she said, and not ensuring a Black person is among those who hear the evidence “is disenfranchising.”

Attorney Karen Cobb, who’s representing the officers, and Assistant City Attorney Ghazal Sharif both opposed passing up white prospective jurors to make sure a Black person is on the panel.

Cobb argued that skipping over qualified prospective jurors with an outcome in mind is “manipulating the process” and “would be incredibly improper.”

“I don’t think it’s a proper position to put the parties in,” she said, adding that, “It will cause even more angst.”

Spearman, who is Black, acknowledged Koehler’s argument “has some force” but should have been raised earlier. “It’s worthy of consideration, but I don’t think doing it at this juncture is appropriate,” he said.

While the two officers have been subpoenaed and will attend the inquest, it remains unclear whether they will testify or try to invoke their Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. While neither officer has been charged, King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg has said he will reserve his final decision in inquest cases pending the jury’s determination on whether the officers acted with “criminality.”

The jury in Lyles’ inquest will consider the officers’ actions in light of the deadly force law that was in effect when she was killed. The law, which was repealed with the passage of Initiative 940 in 2018, requires a finding that “actual malice” was involved in the death.

Satterberg has said it is virtually impossible to prosecute an officer under the old statute.

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