Three black sedans pull up to the loading dock of the King County Courthouse, and a cadre of police officers in suits and holsters step out. Two members of the entourage are unarmed—27-year-old Seattle police officer Ian Birk and his wife, Camille. The entourage enters the courthouse through a side door, neatly avoiding the bundled-up protestors outside holding signs ("Brutality! Charge Birk with Murder!") and all the people queued up at the metal detectors.
It's not even 8:30 a.m., but already roughly 60 people, many of them Native American, are lined up in the marble hallway outside courtroom 854. This is the only courtroom with its own metal detector. Six sheriff's deputies guard the entrance. At the head of the line is a Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation man wearing black warm-up pants and an eagle feather in his hair. Newcomers say a few words to him before heading to the end of the line. He is Rick Williams, the older brother of John T. Williams, a 50-year-old wood-carver fatally shot by Officer Birk during a 10-second encounter on August 30. Birk claims the shooting was self-defense—he says Williams turned on him aggressively with his knife out, forcing him to shoot. But Rick and others question Birk's version of events. For instance, Williams was hit four times in his right side, not in his torso. And a closed knife was found next to his body.
The public inquest, requested by King County executive Dow Constantine, is a fact-finding mission into the circumstances surrounding Williams's death. It isn't a criminal trial, so the jury isn't tasked with condemning or exonerating Birk's actions. Instead the jury is tasked with using testimony and evidence to piece together Williams's last moments alive and trying to determine if Williams was a threat to Birk. If Williams was not a threat, the implication is that Birk ignored police training when he took Williams's life.
As Birk is ushered into the courtroom by guards, a Native American grandmother with steel Brillo hair mutters, "Look at them—they're here to protect him from us." Birk is never seen standing in line or passing through metal detectors, like she and Rick Williams and everyone else has to. "Far as I know, I've never killed nobody, but they're so afraid they've got to search us twice."
The courtroom fills up with the families of Birk and Williams, members of the media, and off-duty Seattle police officers. The 50 friends and supporters of Williams who don't fit are taken to an empty courtroom with a live feed—two large projector screens and spotty audio. They pray together "for the outcome we all desire," says Jay Hollingsworth, cochair of the John T. Williams Organizing Committee, a group calling attention to what they see as Williams's unjustified death and Seattle Police Department (SPD) misconduct. Many in the room are memorializing Williams's death with headbands and other tokens that read "4 Seconds to Death," referring to the amount of time between Officer Birk issuing the first of three commands for Williams to drop his carving knife and Birk opening fire.
Two clear goals unite this group: They want to hear Birk testify, and they want to see him tried for murder.
Everyone called—about 20 people over the course of eight days—is questioned by attorney Melinda Young, representing the King County Prosecutor's Office; attorney Tim Ford, representing the Williams family; and Ted Buck, representing Officer Birk. Other Seattle police officers, like Detective Jeff Mudd, insist that Birk followed protocol and support Birk's story that he felt he was in danger. "We're trained to shoot people who pose a threat to us," Mudd says.
On day two, the crowd in the overflow room gets one of its prayers answered: Birk is called to the stand. He makes eye contact with the jury as he talks, his speech calm and measured. Approaching the intersection of Boren Avenue and Howell Street, he says, "I clearly saw a knife in the open position when he passed in front of my patrol car." This is a sticking point: Part of the reason Birk's feeling endangered seems suspect is because the knife was found closed next to Williams's body. But Birk exudes confidence in his version of events, surprise at the situation, and a faint, detached concern.
"I immediately noticed, based on posture and the way he was walking, he was in some altered mental state, alcohol or something else," Birk says. He pulled over his patrol vehicle and turned on his lights, which activated his in-car dash camera. The camera captures Williams shuffling through the frame, headed west down Howell Street. Birk gets out of his vehicle with his gun drawn and follows him offscreen, shouting "Hey!" three times. "I made an effort to get Mr. Williams's attention, and I got the impression that I did get his attention," says Birk. "He glanced over his right shoulder at me. I motioned for him to come over and talk to me. He walked away."
"He finally does begin to stop and turn around to face me. I became immediately concerned what his posture and demeanor was. He turned with his head first, his body continued to follow. We made eye contact. He had a very stern, very serious, very confrontational look on his face. He was still holding the knife up in front of himself... in a confrontational posture. I immediately started to tell him to drop the knife, to put the knife down. At that point, it became pretty serious pretty fast. Williams was becoming increasingly aggressive at that time." Birk says that Williams was exhibiting pre-attack postures from nine feet away. He explains that police officers are trained to keep 21 feet between themselves and knife-wielding suspects, which is why he felt threatened. Birk neglects to mention that it was he who closed the distance between himself and Williams. "His brow was furrowed, eyes were fixed in a thousand-yard stare. His jaw was set. He had the knife raised up." Birk demonstrates a low fighting stance. "When I made the decision to fire and told him to put the knife down for the third time, I could clearly see the blade of the knife protruding from his right fist."
It's easy to forget based on Birk's description ("He finally does begin to stop..." "At that point, it became pretty serious...") that the entire encounter between Birk and Williams lasted 10 seconds. The pre-attack posturing and aggressiveness allegedly occurred in 4.6 seconds. In those 4.6 seconds, Birk went from ordering Williams to "drop the knife!" to firing his weapon four times. When the video is first shown, several jurors flinch at the sound of gunshots. People gasp in the overflow room. Heads are buried in hands. Pat John, a Native American man, advises people to go to the bathroom and splash their faces four times with cold water to calm themselves. "It will help with the sadness," he says. This video is shown again and again—it's played once or twice or three times with every witness.
The jury flinches at the gunshots, but Birk doesn't. And the back of Rick Williams's head doesn't move.
Then Tim Ford, the attorney for the Williams family, presses Birk on his version of events.
Ford: Seattle police are trained to give a warning before they fire, correct?
Birk: That is part of our training, correct.
Ford: Did you ever say [to Mr. Williams], "Put the knife down or I'll shoot"?
Birk: There was a lot going on. I did the best I could under the circumstances.
Ford: You could've said, "Or I'll shoot."
Birk: I said everything I could've said under the circumstances.
Ford: You could say ["Put the knife down"] three times but you couldn't add "Or I'll shoot"?
Birk: The concern was basically immediate, and I needed to respond as fast as possible... There was no intent on my part to kill Mr. Williams. My intent was to stop the threat. We don't decide who lives or dies. It's a terrible thing.
Several witnesses are called who offer a conflicting account of what happened. No witnesses reported seeing Williams act aggressively toward Birk or anyone else. No witnesses reported seeing a knife in Williams's hand. And no witnesses heard Birk identify himself as an SPD officer.
Thomas Sirgedas was walking to the bus stop after a doctor's appointment when he saw Birk exit his vehicle. "I saw the officer step out of his car, gun pulled—a big bulky square gun, that really got my attention." Sirgedas says he thought the gun was a Taser. "The gun [was] pointed to the ground. I saw the victim walking on the same side of the street, headed towards downtown."
Ford: Did you ever see [Williams] turn all the way around?
Sirgedas: No. He looked over his shoulder.
Ford: Turn partially around?
Ford: Do anything aggressive?
Sirgedas: No. He was walking downtown. He never changed his speed.
Deanna Sebring, another civilian witness, was walking toward Williams and had a good view of him during the confrontation. "He kind of had his head down," she says. "I could see his face, but not fully... there wasn't really any expression. It was just kind of blank."
Nancy Pushman, another witness who was walking ahead of Williams, says she heard Birk calling to Williams but didn't once hear him identify himself as a police officer. "I didn't know it was a police officer, and I didn't want to turn around and become the target of a random shooting," she says. "I think if I would've heard someone say 'Help me' or 'Police,' I definitely would've turned around."
The courtroom adjourns for two short breaks and a long lunch each day of Birk's two-day testimony. Many of the Native Americans present, including Rick, walk to the Chief Seattle Club for a free lunch and a break from the tension. On the second day, Ford, the attorney for the Williams family, a white-haired gentleman with hound-dog jowls, asks Birk if he's been coached on his testimony, earning an immediate "Objection!" from Ted Buck, Birk's lawyer. Birk doesn't have to answer, but it doesn't matter—Ford's point has been made: Birk's testimony seems too poised. His memory seems too clear and reasoned for a violent 10-second encounter. And he's very good at dodging questions.
Ford: You kept walking [toward Williams] as you said "Put the knife down" how many times?
Birk: My recollection is that I stopped moving as soon as I could perceive that he was still holding the knife.
Ford: You shot after the third order. Did Mr. Williams have time to comply between the second and third order?
Birk: Mr. Williams had ample opportunity to do a number of things preventing this situation from becoming what it ultimately became.
Ford: You didn't ever say stop, did you?
Birk: I don't believe I ever did, no.
Ford: You're trained to ask a man with a knife to come toward you?
Birk: Of course, if he would've complied with that command, it would've been a sign that he was compliant with what was going on.
Ford: It's a terrible thought to think that you killed that man if he was trying to comply with your orders and close that knife, isn't it?
Birk: Well, sir, I think it's been made very clear that the whole circumstances are troubling for everyone involved.
A few other details stressed by Ford's line of questioning: Officer Birk did not call for backup. The time it took between Birk's three rapid-fire orders at Williams to "put the knife down" to when Birk opened fire is 4.6 seconds—a questionable amount of time to process and obey such an order for anyone, let alone a reportedly half-deaf man with what the medical examiner described as a blood-alcohol level of 0.18 (or over twice the legal driving limit).
Interspersed with his questions, Ford plays the in-car video of the event again and again for the courtroom. He highlights a woman saying, right before the two-minute mark, "Why did you shoot that man? He didn't do anything!" to which Birk responds, "Ma'am, he had a knife and he wouldn't drop it."
Ford: Not "He threatened me with a knife." You didn't say, "He was about to attack me with a knife."
Birk: Being addressed by a citizen... it was not the time to go into detail about what happened.
Ford: You didn't say, when talking to another officer [also heard in the video], "He tried to attack me."
Birk: We were trying to move through the process as quickly as possible. When speaking with another police officer, it's not the time to go through the specifics of what happened. [Saying "He wouldn't drop the knife"] gives them enough of an idea of what's going on. The time and circumstances wouldn't have been appropriate to go into details.
Ford: You never told [Detective Mudd, who's investigating the shooting], "I thought he was going to attack me." You said nothing about pre-attack indicators.
Birk: I believe it was clear to Detective Mudd that was clear.
I stare at Birk's wife, Camille, through most of his testimony. They've been married almost three years. Camille is pretty, young, blond, and seated directly across from the jury. She wears pastel skirts and demure tops—Easter Sunday outfits. Her expression doesn't change much. It appears frozen. I guess her job is to stare at the jury and look modest and sad and supportive and brave. When her husband sits next to her, they often hold hands and look modest and brave together. When he's on the stand, her hands are folded in her lap and she looks quietly trapped. This inquest is the beginning of a public ordeal for the couple that will most likely stretch on for years. King County prosecutor Dan Satterberg could press criminal charges against Birk. The Williams family could—and probably will—press civil charges. The SPD's internal review board has already reportedly found his shooting of Williams to be unjustified (although this information is withheld from the inquest jury), which means he could be fired from the department.
I wonder what goes through her head when her husband is on the stand. I wonder if she believes his story.
Ford: You testified that Mr. Williams was staring right at you [when you fired]?
Birk: That's what I recollect, yes, sir.
Ford: Do you know why, then, the bullet passed through the right cheek and out his left cheek?
Birk's attorney objects to the question. Camille remains either brave or expressionless. The objection is sustained; Birk doesn't have to answer.
Protestors come and go in waves all week. Some days, people carry signs depicting Birk with devil horns and red eyes. They chant about police brutality and are not allowed in the courtroom. Other days, these same protestors put their signs away and sit quietly in the courtroom with everyone else. But even then, Birk is demonized in small ways. People speculate that he uses steroids and that triggered his violent encounter with Williams. They speculate that he was a trained military killing machine (in fact, Birk enlisted in the Army National Guard as a paralegal but he's never been deployed). They speculate that SPD ordered a "hit" on Williams because he used up too many public resources. They speculate SPD ordered Williams killed to appease a bloodthirsty demon god, who is also, apparently, racist. SPD flatly denies all of these rumors.
These rumors almost don't warrant addressing—I mean, obviously there's no racist demon god worshipped exclusively by SPD officers. The rumors aren't the point. It's the sentiment, the hysteria driving them that's the point. A week's worth of testimony makes clear that Williams wasn't doing anything illegal when Birk approached him. He was carrying two knives that were legal according to city law (their blades were under 3.5 inches in length). Both knives were found and photographed closed, at the scene, by homicide detective Sergeant Robert Vallor. Again, no witnesses reported seeing Williams acting aggressive toward (or even aware of) the police officer who shot him. And yet he was gunned down in 10 seconds. When photographs of Williams's body are shown as part of the medical examiner's testimony, his brother leaves the courtroom. People in the overflow room cover their eyes or leave to flush their faces with cold water.
Officer William Collins—a 21-year veteran for SPD—testifies that it doesn't matter if the knife that Williams was holding was open or closed when he was shot by Birk, because either way, the knife presented an imminent threat to the officer. Officer Collins, who was the senior officer at the scene of the shooting, can be heard telling Birk "Good job" in the video of the incident.
Ford: Is a closed knife a similar threat as an open knife?
Collins: Absolutely. It's a major threat. To me it's just as big [a threat] as an open knife... It's extremely dangerous, and you have to treat the person with utmost caution.
Ford: A closed knife is grounds for using a firearm?
Collins: I believe so... it can be opened in an instant. You can get your ears cut off and be stabbed. We don't get paid enough to be hurt.
Later Ford asks Collins to clarify.
Ford: If you ordered a person to put down the knife and he looks at you with a mean look on his face, [he could be shot]—is that what you're testifying to?
Collins: The implication is, yes, that if you don't drop it, you may be shot.
On January 18, the last day of testimony, Rick Williams takes the stand. He and his brother were both wood-carvers, trained by a long line of wood-carvers. Rick tells me during a break that he is teaching his three teenage sons the art of wood carving. I stupidly ask if it makes him nervous—meaning, I suppose, does it make him nervous to be teaching his sons the craft that got his brother killed? He stares at me a moment, then says, "It's just wood."
Of course carving doesn't make him nervous. Taking the stand, though, clearly does. His testimony is tense, mostly monosyllabic, and delivered barely above a whisper. When questioned by Melinda Young, the attorney from the King County Prosecutor's Office, he testifies that his brother would've closed his knife if he'd known he was being approached by an officer—or anyone else.
Young: How many times have you seen your brother with a knife?
Williams: Most of his life.
Young: How often have you seen him using the knife for carving totems?
Williams: Every day. Most of his life.
Young: What would he do when he talked to people?
Williams: Close it, stand up, and talk to them... every time someone talked to him.
Young: Every time?
Young: Without fail?
Young: Was that something you were trained to do?
Young: By your father?
After testimony ends, the eight-person jury takes a day and a half to deliberate on the 13 questions posed to them. "You are the sole judges of the credibility of each witness," presiding judge Arthur Chapman explains. "You are the sole judges of the weight and value of each witness's testimony. You are responsible for noting any bias or prejudice the witness may have shown." Most of the questions are straightforward—like, "On August 30, 2010, did Seattle police officer Ian Birk observe John T. Williams crossing the street?" Each member of the jury is directed to answer each question, and the total number of yes, no, or unknown answers is recorded next to the question. Judge Chapman adds, "You should endeavor to answer each question 'yes' or 'no' based on what the evidence supports"—in other words, only answer "unknown" as a last-resort cop-out.
When the jury announces they've reached their conclusions, people once again pack into the courtroom and overflow room. The mood in both rooms is somber.
The juror's answers, read to the hushed courtroom by Judge Chapman, prove that they had significant doubts as to whether or not John T. Williams had an open knife in his hand when Officer John Birk approached him. They also doubt Williams was a risk to Officer Birk at the time of the shooting and whether he had time to drop the knife—as Officer Birk ordered—before Birk opened fire.
On the question "Did Officer Birk order John T. Williams to put the knife down?" all eight answered yes. On the question "Did Officer Birk order John T. Williams to put the knife down more than once?" all eight answered yes. On the question "Did John T. Williams have sufficient time to put the knife down after Officer Birk's order?" one answered yes, four answered no, and three answered unknown.
"When Officer Birk fired his weapon, did John T. Williams have a knife in his hand?" Eight answered yes. "If yes, was John T. Williams's blade open when Officer Birk fired his weapon?" Four answered no and four answered unknown. "Did Officer Birk believe that John T. Williams posed an imminent threat of serious physical harm to Officer Birk at the time Officer Birk fired his weapon?" Four answered yes and four answered unknown. "Based on the information available at the time Officer Birk fired his weapon, did John T. Williams then pose an imminent threat of serious physical harm to Officer Birk?" One answered yes, four answered no, and three answered unknown.
These particular answers are significant because they show that Officer Birk failed to convince a majority of the jurors of his version of events. These particular questions forced the jury to choose between trusting Birk's testimony or rejecting it. When it comes down to it, Birk's testimony is the only evidence the public has that Williams's blade was open when Birk confronted him. Similarly, Birk's testimony as a professional police officer is the only proof we have that Williams was an imminent threat to Birk's safety. He failed to convince a jury that Williams had an open knife, had ample time to put it down, or posed an imminent threat. He failed to convince them that he was doing his job correctly.
King County prosecutor Satterberg has announced he will review all of the evidence and testimony presented during the inquest. He'll decide whether to press criminal charges against Birk by mid-February. If Satterberg presses charges, it will be the first time in 30 years that criminal charges were brought against an on-duty police officer for firing his weapon.
For Rick Williams, this is the first step in what could be a years-long process of seeking justice in his brother's death. "I'm finally able to get some sleep," he says. "It's a heavy load I've been carrying."