Tommy Le was killed this past June when a King County deputy shot the 20-year-old twice in the back. Now, the county is getting ready to conduct a formal inquest hearing into his death.
Le’s family is complaining that the inquest hearing’s structure prevents them from having a meaningful voice.
During a pre-inquest hearing on Friday, the family’s attorneys asked for expanded rights during the inquest, including the right to call their own witnesses, to introduce their own evidence, and to directly address the inquest’s jury with an opening and a closing statement.
Jeffrey Campiche, an attorney representing Le’s family, said that without these rights, the County will be able to “white wash” Le’s death and stop the inquest from effectively examining how Le was killed.
“The family is given no voice, there is no opportunity at the hearing to directly speak to the jury, so the only narrative that they will get comes from the sheriff’s office,” Campiche told reporters before the hearing.
Inquest hearings are called by the King County Executive after a law enforcement officer is involved in a death. Inquests are judicial proceedings with a judge, jury and attorneys representing each side, but the hearings do not decide any criminal charges or civil penalties. After witnesses are cross examined and evidence is presented, the jury answers a series of yes or no questions about the facts surrounding the death.
Judge Susan Mahoney, who is presiding over the inquest, said she would discuss and make a decision on the motions at a later pre-inquest hearing scheduled for Jan. 12, 2018. However, Mahoney cautioned that she thought some of the family’s requests appeared to be beyond her power to grant and would need to be approved by County Executive Dow Constantine.
“I really think the executive would have to make that decision to change it, I don’t think it is a decision that I can make,” Mahoney said.
Campiche sent a letter to Constantine on Wednesday requesting the expanded rights. Alex Fryer, a spokesman for Constantine’s office, said the executive did not plan on modifying the inquest’s rules.
“We don’t currently make exceptions to procedures established by Executive Order (included for your reference) governing inquests in King County. That would not be fair,” Fryer said in an e-mail Friday.
The family’s attorneys already have the ability to bring outside evidence or witnesses into the inquest hearings, but only with the judge’s permission. The inquest is also structured so that one of King County’s own prosecuting attorneys introduces all witnesses and evidence to the jury. Campiche wants a broader right to call witnesses and evidence and to present them to the jury.
“In every other courthouse we have a right to call a witness, subject to relevance. In the inquest we can beg for a witness and I don’t get to present the testimony, that’s presented by the prosecutor who is in the law firm that defends the county,” Campiche said.
Campiche also wants the right to directly address the jury with an opening and closing statement. The county’s rules for inquests explicitly blocks any attorneys from doing so.
Campiche said it was imperative for these rules to be expanded, in part because the county already has a history of distorting the narrative surrounding Le’s death. The King County Sheriff’s Department originally described Le as a man armed with a knife, a detail that was heavily covered by T.V. reporters at the time.
A week later, after questions from Daniel Person with Seattle Weekly, the county admitted that no knife was found near Le and he was probably armed only with a pen.
Initial reports from the county also described Le as advancing towards deputies when he was shot, but an autopsy report released by Le’s family determined that Le was struck by two bullets entering into his back.
Mahoney, addressing the extensive family gathered in the courtroom Friday, cautioned that the inquest was only to determine what happened that night, not what should have happened or if anyone was at fault.
“We are not asking what could have happened, what some people think maybe should have happened, or what could have been done different. The scope of this inquest is what did happen,” Mahoney said.
Mahoney also warned Campiche that some of his requests were likely outside of her power to grant.
“I only have the authority that was given to me by the executive in the ordinance in conducting the hearing in the way that the law and policies are currently set forth,” Mahone said. “I think that some of those policies and guidelines are going to dictate some of the court’s decisions, I just want to be frank about that.”
A terse exchange followed with Campiche and Mahoney talking over each other.
“I would ask the court to not prejudge my motion,” Campiche said.
“I certainly hope I didn’t sound as if I did,” Mahoney said.
“You did, you certainly did,” Campiche said.
“I apologize,” Mahoney said.
Campiche’s isn’t the first person to criticize the effectiveness of King County’s inquest process. Legal advocates are calling for the county to provide public defenders for families going through the inquests. Unlike Le’s family, most families of people killed by law enforcement in the county are unable to even get an attorney to represent them at the hearings, and the county won’t provide public defenders for inquests. At least 22 families have sat through inquest hearings since 2012 without any help from legal counsel, according to the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s office.
Fryer said the inquest process is currently being examined by the executive’s office, but could not provide any additional details about that policy review.
“We’re working on the details and we’ll let you know when we’re ready to make a public announcement,” Fryer said in an e-mail.
Xuyen Le, the aunt of Tommy Le, said she is still haunted by Tommy’s death and doesn’t trust the inquest process.
“We really have no faith in them,” Le said.
The next pre-inquest hearing for Tommy Le is scheduled for Jan. 12 of next year.