State Supreme Court Case Could Determine Fate of King County’s Inquest Process

Police shootout

King County is one of the only jurisdictions in the country that requires an inquest every time a police officer kills a community member. But will these inquests continue to be largely pro forma processes that almost always appear to absolve officers of wrongdoing? Or will they become a meaningful tool for police accountability, a truly fair and transparent examination of what happened and why when law enforcement kills a member of the community? Families whose loved ones have been killed by law enforcement hope it is the latter.

This issue is pending before the State Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear a complex set of lawsuits over King County’s inquest process. Oral arguments in The Family of Damarius Butts, et al., v. Dow Constantine are scheduled for Jan. 19, 2021.

Inquests are investigations into deaths where the cause of death is unnatural or suspicious, rooted in a state law that gives county coroners broad authority to hold such proceedings in their jurisdictions. In King County, that authority holds enormous potential, in part because the King County Charter mandates that every death involving a member of law enforcement in the course of their duties will be subject to an inquest. And as the sole public investigation after a police officer kills a community member, these proceedings matter.

Unfortunately, for years, that mandate has had little meaning in King County due to the way inquests were structured: They were held before a six-member jury whose only role was to determine narrow factual issues involved in the case; often the only relevant question was whether the officer subjectively feared for their life. And in three-quarters of inquests, the only party represented by attorneys were the officers who killed a community member, not the community member’s family.

A few years ago, community members began calling for reform, motivated in large part by the enormous racial disparity they saw in police killings. Black community members in King County are nearly eight times more likely to be killed by the police than whites. Several high-profile cases over the last decade—where officers who killed people of color were absolved of wrongdoing—underscored the cry for reform.

In response, King County Executive Dow Constantine paused all inquest hearings in 2017. And in 2018, a multiracial coalition of community organizations as well as law enforcement representatives worked with the executive to transform the inquest process. Under new rules announced in October 2018, all families, upon request, would be represented by an attorney from the King County Department of Public Defense and jurors would be asked to determine whether the officer’s actions complied with their department’s training and policy.

In 2019, several inquests were convened to investigate the deaths of Damarius Butts, Isaiah Obet, and Charleena Lyles—all Black community members killed by law enforcement in King County. In early 2020, lawsuits were filed to determine the scope and procedures of the inquests. King County Superior Court Judge Julie Spector ruled in favor of the law enforcement parties and struck down many aspects of the newly revised inquest process, effectively preventing any inquests from moving forward.

The Supreme Court granted direct review and will hear arguments stemming from the lawsuits next week. The families of Butts, Obet, and Lyles, represented by lawyers at the King County Department of Public Defense and the Public Defender Association, sued to enforce statutory obligations requiring that subpoenas be issued for officers who killed a community member to testify and that inquest juries make findings as to whether deaths were caused by criminal means. The law enforcement parties—including the officers who killed Butts and Lyles and the law enforcement agencies of Auburn, Kent, and Federal Way and the King County Sheriff’s Office—challenged the very basis of Constantine’s reformed inquest process, arguing that he “distorted” a useful tool that wasn’t “designed to mete out ‘justice,’ ‘reform,’ or ‘accountability.’” King County has defended against each of these suits to protect the executive’s authority to “adopt this comprehensive investigative process.”

The issues are complex and technical, touching upon the King County charter, the separation of powers, the Fifth and Sixth Amendment protections, and more. But from the perspective of the families we represent, this case also touches upon an issue of great import in the wake of the death of George Floyd and the ongoing demand for racial justice: Can inquests provide a step toward meaningful police reform and accountability? We believe they can and must.