Ephraim Nelson has a lot of questions about how his 20-year-old brother was killed by Kent Police this past August. Police say Ephraim’s brother, Eugene, resisted arrest and dragged a police officer with his car when two Kent police officers unleashed a flurry of bullets into Eugene’s vehicle. But Ephraim and his godmother question the validity of the police’s account of that evening.
The county uses a process called inquest hearings to try to answer these questions. The hearings are structured like a trial, with a judge and a jury, but instead of the jury deliberating on criminal charges or civil penalties the jury instead answers a series of yes or no questions at the end of the inquest. Anytime a cop kills someone in King County, officials convene an inquest hearing, but some lawyers say Ephraim is unlikely to get a fair shake from that process.
That’s because Ephraim, who lost his mother in January and his only remaining immediate family member when the cops killed Eugene in August, can’t afford to hire his own lawyer to represent him during the inquest hearing. And the county won’t provide one for him.
The county and police officers are lawyering up for the upcoming inquest, but the only advocates for Eugene will be the 21-year-old Ephraim and Eugene’s godmother Yvonne Monet Miller.
This puts Ephraim at a severe disadvantage when it comes to getting a fair examination of what happened that deadly August night, according to Lisa Daugaard, the director of Seattle’s Public Defender Association. Without a background in law, the families of people killed by police are ill-equipped to ask questions and explore evidence.
Daugaard said, “The subject matter is exactly the same subject matter where we typically do have a right to counsel. You have professional witnesses, you have very high stakes subject matter, you have a matter of great public interest and those elements really heighten the need for counsel to participate on behalf of the family.”
Ephraim is not the first family member to go through a King County inquest hearing without access to an attorney. According to figures provided by Mark Larson, chief prosecutor for the Criminal Division of the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, at least 22 families have sat through inquest hearings since 2012 without having an attorney present. Out of the eight inquests ordered so far this year, only three families have hired attorneys. The family of Giovonn Joseph-McDade, who was the victim of another high-profile police killing in Kent this summer, has also been unable to acquire an attorney.
The lack of counsel for families isn’t surprising. It costs thousands of dollars to retain an attorney for an inquest. While inquest hearings do not culminate in any arrests or charges, they still carry all the formalities and workload of a regular court case. James Bible, a Seattle attorney that represented the family of Che Taylor during an inquest hearing after Taylor was killed last year, said having an attorney is the only hope for a family looking for answers from the inquest process.
“Ultimately the process is questionable in the first place but every phase of that process is critical in terms of having an attorney if you are going to make it even semi-meaningful,” Bible said.
Inquest hearings are narrowly tailored to establish the facts surrounding how a person ended up dead at the hands of a police officer. To do this, a jury is selected to hear witness testimony, view evidence and, at the end of the inquest, answer a series of yes or no questions about the events that took place.
Attorneys like Bible spend hundreds of hours preparing for an inquest. They pore over hundreds or even thousands of pages of police reports surrounding the event, they interview witnesses and even try to gather their own evidence. The inquest itself require skills that attorneys hone in law school: filing court documents, deliberating over jury selection, cross-examining witnesses, and wrangling over which questions the jury answers at the end of the inquest.
Corey Guilmette, Bible’s co-counsel during the Che Taylor inquest and one of the attorneys representing Charleena Lyles’ family in their upcoming inquest, said it’s beneficial for a family to retain an attorney as soon as an inquest is called for.
“That’s partly how the inquest is valuable—if you have an attorney they can review the police’s investigation and can find if things were missed. Obviously, its advantageous to start doing that as soon as possible… The longer you get from the killing the more people’s memories can fade, evidence just becomes harder to obtain,” Guilmette said.
Andre Taylor, a police reform advocate and the brother of Che Taylor, said inquest hearings are a farce without legal representation for families, and plans on continuing to pressure the county to provide public defenders to families.
“It’s unfair that the county is not giving them an attorney,” Taylor said. “It’s just ridiculous, it’s a ridiculous process if the families don’t have representation.”
Because there are no settlements at the end of inquests, many attorneys that provide counsel to families, including Bible and Guilmette, do it for free. But there simply aren’t enough attorneys to provide free counsel to families during inquests, Daugaard said. “There isn’t a solution to this unless the county steps in and provides counsel for public inquests,” she added.
Alex Fryer, a spokesperson for King County, said the county is currently studying the idea of providing legal counsel to families. “This is one of several issues related to inquests that are being reviewed internally. We should have more information in the coming weeks,” Fryer said Monday in an e-mail.
Sonia Joseph, the mother of Giovonn Joseph-McDade, said she hasn’t even had time to grieve, let alone prepare for a judicial proceeding, and is at a loss for what to do during the inquest.
“I don’t think I ever had a chance to grieve yet. I do every day but I don’t think I fully have because I’ve been so busy just trying to get through putting him to rest and then dealing with how to get an attorney and how this process works,” Joseph said. “I am not experienced with any of this. Of course there’s a worry because I don’t have the experience to know what to expect or what to ask or how it will go.”
Yvonne Monet Miller, Eugene Nelson’s godmother and his former fourth grade teacher, is working with Ephraim to try to find some answers to Eugene’s death. She said she has been overwhelmed trying to navigate the inquest process without an attorney.
“I immediately felt like we were at a disadvantage if we didn’t have an attorney. We don’t have the time and expertise to go find the documentation, we would be running around with chickens with our heads cut off,” Yvonne said.
Ephraim said he will still be attending the inquest, even if he doesn’t have an attorney to represent his brother’s interests. “Even if the system is flawed, I’ll still be there.”