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‘Worst case scenario’ keeps answers elusive in West Seattle homicide

By Sara Jean Green, The Seattle Times
Published: February 26, 2024, 7:35am

SEATTLE — It’s been over a month since a 15-year-old Chief Sealth International High School student was fatally shot in the boys’ bathroom at a nearby youth recreation center in West Seattle.

The three teenage boys who were with Mobarak Adam when he was killed Jan. 23 were identified by Seattle police, but investigators haven’t interviewed them because of a two-year-old state law meant to protect juveniles’ constitutional rights. The teens were appointed attorneys that night and invoked their right to remain silent.

The King County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled Adam’s death a homicide a week later, but police still don’t know the circumstances surrounding his killing — and it’s hard to say if they ever will.

“Everybody in that bathroom is a witness until we can identify who actually pulled the trigger,” said Seattle police Chief Adrian Diaz. “But we can’t interview [them] without their attorneys present, and if their attorneys say, ‘We’re not interviewing,’ it limits our ability to get basic information about what happened.”

The gun used in Adam’s killing hasn’t been found, so there’s no fingerprints or DNA evidence to point to the likely shooter. And while cameras would never be installed in a bathroom, there isn’t any video evidence from inside the Southwest Teen Life Center because the cameras covering common areas stopped working more than five years ago, according to a Seattle Parks and Recreation spokesperson. (Because of the shooting, a new $150,000 camera system is expected to be up and running by mid-March.)

That confluence of factors — no video evidence or adult witnesses in an incident involving all juveniles — presents a kind of “worst case scenario” for investigators, said Senior Deputy Prosecutor Mary Barbosa.

A similar situation played out in the Feb. 11 shooting death of Aiden Elledge, 15, in Burien, she said. Elledge was alone in a room with a 15-year-old friend, who also exercised his right to remain silent and was not interviewed by sheriff’s detectives. As in Adam’s case, there were no adult witnesses or any video of the shooting.

“I don’t fault the lawyers. They are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing, which is protect the kids,” Barbosa said. “The difficulty becomes when the police don’t know who is a witness versus who is a suspect.”

The lawyers who represent juveniles in these kinds of cases are ethically bound to offer advice in the youth’s best interest — not the best interest of the victim, victim’s family or larger community.

“The best outcome for them is to not say anything, particularly here when you’re talking about people who were around a gun who are too young to be around a gun,” said Barbosa, who helps lead a team of prosecutors who respond to every potential homicide scene in the county.

And though prosecutors can facilitate immunity agreements so youths can provide information without incriminating details being held against them, there have apparently been no such agreements in Adam’s homicide.

“Let’s just say all those avenues have been explored,” Barbosa said.

Liz Mustin, who manages the Youth Access to Counsel program for the state Office of Public Defense, said youths usually choose not to consent to police interviews, though that’s not always the case.

Investigators primarily turn to the state Office of Public Defense, which operates a 24-hour hotline police can call to connect youth with attorneys. But after Adam’s death, Seattle police opted to contact the King County Department of Public Defense to more quickly get attorneys appointed to the three teens who were with him.

While public defender Anita Khandelwal declined to comment on the case, she said the law necessitating attorneys’ involvement is “critically important” because “young people do not appreciate the consequences of waiving these rights — and research further shows that they have a very hard time asserting their rights given the power differential between them and law enforcement.”

Intent of the law

The law requiring law enforcement officers to provide youth under 18 with access to an attorney before they’re interviewed was first passed by the Seattle City Council and Metropolitan King County Council in 2020 before it became state law a year later as part of a package of police reform measures.

The intent behind the law — which went into effect statewide in 2022 — is to ensure young people understand their constitutional rights and the implications of waiving those rights before speaking with police. It’s also meant to mitigate the inherent power imbalance between an armed, adult police officer and a young person with a still-developing brain, especially in situations where adrenaline is pumping and emotions are running high.

In cases where a youth is clearly a victim or witness, the law doesn’t apply and they would not be entitled to an attorney prior to questioning. It’s in cases where police can’t easily determine who is a witness or suspect that things get complicated.

That’s because the law doesn’t distinguish between juvenile witnesses and potential suspects or accomplices — and it’s still so new that there aren’t any court decisions to interpret the statute, leaving police officers to perform mental gymnastics in the field to decide whether it applies. Even when youths want to speak with police, they can’t waive the requirement that they first consult an attorney by phone, video call or in person.

The only times police can question a juvenile without following the requirement is if someone’s life is in imminent danger or the officer suspects the youth is a trafficking victim.

The statute kicks in before a police officer questions a juvenile during a custodial interrogation, detains them on suspected involvement in a crime or asks their consent for an evidence search.

It’s the first clause about custodial interrogation that’s proving challenging because even a question as seemingly innocuous as “What happened?” can be considered likely to elicit an incriminating response. If a young person invokes the right to remain silent — as was the case in both the West Seattle and Burien shootings — police aren’t always able to determine if a crime was committed, let alone move from reasonable suspicion to probable cause that someone was involved.

“The biggest problem with that section of the law is that it essentially replaces the officer’s objective basis for determining probable cause with a juvenile’s subjective determination about whether or not they’re free to leave,” said Rebecca Boatright, general counsel for the Seattle Police Department.

Failure to comply with the statute risks most statements or any evidence obtained from a juvenile later being thrown out by a judge.

Steve Strand, the executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said he thinks the statute is too broadly written and as a result, has had some unintended consequences, like preventing youth from sharing information with police that could clear them of wrongdoing or explain a situation.

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Strand said that if officers have probable cause to arrest youths but are unable to interview them, they have little choice but to take them to juvenile detention — eliminating the chance for an officer to find alternatives to bringing a child into the criminal legal system.

“The idea of the bill is one everyone, including us, agrees on, which is: Ensure juveniles are fully aware of their rights and fully informed of their rights when involved in the criminal justice system. That’s a very worthy goal,” Strand said.

“The real-world outcome has been really counter to I think the intentions of the bill … It’s completely changed the lay of the land in terms of investigating juvenile crime.”