The family of Tommy Le, the unarmed 20-year-old shot and killed by a King County Sheriff deputy last June, is “disillusioned but not surprised” by the announcement today that the county has cleared the two deputies involved in the killing of any wrongdoing, according to attorneys representing the family.
Jeff Campiche, an attorney representing the Le family in a lawsuit against the county, said the family has lacked trust in the county since the day a sheriff’s deputy shot and killed their son.
“The reason that they are not surprised is that since the day of Tommy’s shooting the sheriff’s office has disseminated less than complete and often misleading information,” Campiche said.
Linda Diem Tran, an attorney with Campiche’s law office, said the Le family is “disillusioned but not surprised” about the county’s report.
“These are Vietnamese immigrants that came to America and they believe in the system and for this to happen, they are just so distressed,” Tran said. “This is awful.”
Le was shot and killed by King County Deputy Cesar Molina on June 14 of last year in Burien. According to the sheriff’s office, one of Le’s neighbors called police after he saw Le acting erratically and allegedly struck the neighbor's door. One of the neighbors allegedly used his handgun to fire a warning shot into the ground before retreating into his house, according to the Sheriff’s office. When Molina and Deputy Tanner Owens arrived they attempted to subdue Le with Taser but were unable to stop the 20-year-old, so Molina shot him, according to the Sheriff’s press release.
The county’s Force Review Board found “Molina and Owens acted within policy when they drew their service weapons and Molina fired. The board concluded Molina feared Le would harm him, Owens or the people in the yard nearby, with the object he held in his hand.”
Officers said they thought Le had a knife in his hand, but after Molina killed him they saw that it was not a knife but rather a Bic pen. The review board said Molina was justified in killing the 20-year-old regardless of whether or not he was armed.
“It is not clear that events would have evolved differently even if deputies realized that Le held a pen. A pen can be used as an improvised weapon. Aimed at vulnerable parts of the body, like the face or throat, it can cause serious bodily injury if used to stab someone,” the county said in a press release.
Campiche said he almost laughed when he read the county’s claim that Le and his Bic pen posed a threat to the two officers.
“A 120-pound kid places five police officers at risk, sufficient to take his life, with a Bic ink pen? Well, I sure hope we have some more qualified Sheriff deputies than that,” Campiche said.
Campiche said the Use of Force Report was missing key forensic evidence, including the fact that Le was shot twice in the back which would refute the county’s insistence that Le was attacking officers when Molina killed him.
“Try to find mention in this report that Tommy Le weighed 120 pounds and was shot in the back three times, it’s not in there,” Campiche said. “They’re hiding the forensic evidence which is neutral, it doesn’t lie. It has been a year and there has been no forensic evaluation of the door jams, of the ink pen that they claim Tommy had in his hand, of the bullets in the wall, of the other pieces of tasers.”
The county would usually have conducted an inquest hearing, a type of quasi-judicial fact finding process, before concluding the Use of Force Report, but King County Executive Dow Constantine has suspended all inquest hearings while his office rewrites the rules for the process. Campiche said the inquest would not have provided any other relief to the family.
“The inquest is bankrupt, it’s been bankrupt for years,” Campiche said. “They would just present to the inquest the same biased version of the facts that is here.”
Joe Nguyen, a candidate for state senate representing parts of south King County, including where Le was killed, said he wasn’t surprised by the county’s findings.
“I don’t think anybody is surprised. The part that is frustrating is this is what we thought was going to happen. And they kept telling us to wait for the process, and then this happens,” Nguyen said. “We have a fucking society where someone was experiencing a sort of crisis and their response was to shoot them? C'mon.”
Nguyen, who is Vietnamese himself, said the local Vietnamese community has been watching the case closely.
“The community is very aware of what’s going on and honestly we are torn because we do generally have a respect for authority and law enforcement, but this certainly does not build trust in terms of our existence in the community,” Nguyen said.
Diane Narasaki, the executive director of the Asian Counseling and Referral Service, said in an e-mail that the board’s decision “continues the false narrative that essentially blames Tommy Le for his own death.”
“How can this fatal shooting be justified, when Tommy Le was killed by being shot in the back, holding only a pen? If Tommy Le was charging the Sheriffs, as was claimed, he would have had to have been running backward at the Sheriffs,” Narasaki said. “If Tommy Le’s killing was justified on policy grounds, there is either something wrong with the policy or it is being interpreted incorrectly.”
The Le family has already filed a civil lawsuit against King County in federal court, Campiche said the court date is set for June of next year.