King County is one of the few local governments that orders a unique public hearing called an inquest after a police officer kills someone. But amid the county's reckoning with a slate of high profile shootings over the last year, officials are being pressured by families of shooting victims to reform those inquests—and are now considering whether to provide those families with public lawyers during the inquest process.
First, a quick definition: Inquests are fact-finding hearings held in municipal courtrooms in front of a judge and a six-person jury. Unlike criminal or civil court cases, inquests don't establish fault. During in quests, families of the deceased listen to law enforcement officers and witnesses describe what happened, and county attorneys can call on experts. Police officers are almost always represented by police union lawyers. At the end of the process, the jury answers questions ("interrogatories") to establish facts about the incident, which can later be used by prosecutors in deciding whether to file formal charges.
But some families of police shooting victims, attorneys, and activists say the inquest process is stacked in favor of police officers. For one thing, the shooting victim is never there to tell his or her side of the story. And families navigating the limited inquest process have to hire their own lawyers if they want to try and have questions answered.
Between 2012 and 2016, the county has ordered 34 inquests into police shooting deaths. As Lester Black reported last November, 22 families have undergone inquests over shooting deaths of their loved ones since 2012 without any representation at all.
Today, at a meeting of the King County Council's Law and Justice Committee, County Council members Jeanne Kohl-Welles, Rod Dembowski, and Dave Upthegrove introduced a piece of legislation that would provide public defenders to represent families during the inquest process.
There to speak in favor of the legislation, but also to call for further reform, was Sonia Joseph, the mother of Giovonn Joseph-McDade, a 20-year-old Green River College student shot and killed by Kent police last year.
"This is an unfair process, and it's biased," Joseph said. "I went through an inquest process without legal counsel, and I boycotted and protested that inquest. That is part of the reason we are here today, because I refuse for this to continue and I think that a lot of people here are here for the same reason."
Lisa Daugaard, director of the Public Defender Association, explained to the County Council that the department didn't have the resources to represent Joseph because they "tapped out" for the costs of representing the siblings of police shooting victim Charleena Lyles. When community activists raised enough funds for Joseph to hire a lawyer of her own, it was too late for the lawyer to participate in the inquest process.
"This ordinance really could be called Sonia's Law," Daugaard said. "Really it was only community fund-raising out of desperation that allowed Ms. Joseph to hire a lawyer too late."
De-escalate Washington chair Andre Taylor said that while other parts of the inquest process will take time to reform, providing attorneys to families is something that could be put into practice immediately. A staff report from the county noted that providing public representation could be accomplished with existing resources at the Department of Public Defense. And at the meeting, DPD policy director Anita Khandelwal said that public defenders are "ready, willing, and able to take on that work."
King County Presiding Judge Donna Tucker, however, criticized comments from family members about a lack of justice in the inquest process, noting that the inquest process was separate from, and not responsible for, meting out fault and punishment. She said that she worried the county's inquest reform process and the public might "blur the lines" among executive, legislative, and judicial branch functions.
Still, County Council members on the Law and Justice committee unanimously passed the ordinance out of committee for consideration of the full council. It will now be scheduled for a vote there.
Earlier this week, King County Executive Dow Constantine announced a halt to all five pending inquests—including Butts'—while the county inquest task force investigates how the inquest process might be reformed.
For example, at the Law and Justice Committee hearing, former Des Moines City Attorney Patricia Bosmans, now a lawyer who has represented families of shooting victims, told Council members that they might consider an alternative process, such as a Hearing Examiner, altogether. Judges, she noted, are elected, and "know the consequences of saying 'no' to law enforcement."