The Williams Inquest: Will Its Result Bring Justice?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

On January 10, an inquest regarding the August 30, 2010, fatal shooting of First Nations carver John T. Williams by Seattle Police Officer Ian Birk will be held at the King County Courthouse.  Reports indicate the police department’s Firearms Review Board preliminarily ruled the shooting was unjustified.  

Does this mean the inquest verdict will be the same?

The history of inquest outcomes in King County suggests an inquest verdict against the officer would be unprecedented in the 30 years that King County has had an inquest system similar to its current form. In 1999, reporter Rick Anderson examined King County inquests in depth  and found that none had resulted in a ruling that the officer’s conduct was unjustified – even when there had been Firearms Review Board findings to the contrary, and even when jurors raised questions about whether the death was necessary.  Here are a few examples: (describing a 2001 officer-involved death where the Firearms Review Board said the shooting was unjustified but the inquest still ruled in favor of the officer; and also noting the 2001 incident was “a confrontation that was caught on tape and broadcast repeatedly on local television, sparking fierce debate about police, race and deadly force.”  Sound familiar?) (describing a 2004 inquest into death of woman at airport security checkpoint, finding the officer’s conduct contributed to the death but not ruling against the officer) (inquest jury examining a 1988 shooting raised some questions about the facts but still ruled in favor of the officer; this was a case where a man had been laying on a couch in his own home, clutching a television remote-control clicker - a device the officer who shot him said he thought was a gun pointed in his direction – when police burst in and killed him.  Bascomb's dying words, according to officers: "What's going on? Why did you do it?") (inquest jurors raised questions but did not rule against officers)

Anderson’s 1999 article notes that King County has had an inquest process since the 1980s.  The procedures for it were overhauled in 2002 and revised again in 2010.  The current policy and procedures can be found on King County’s website:

How Does an Inquest Work?

Basically, the county executive requests an inquest whenever there is an officer-involved death in King County.  The county prosecutor presents evidence to a six-person jury selected from the pool used for King County Superior Court juries.  The decedent’s family and their lawyer and the officer and his/her lawyer are permitted to be present.  The jury is asked to answer a series of yes/no questions. 

The county’s procedures describe questions submitted to the inquest jury as “factual” rather than determinations of fault or liability:

15. JURY INTERROGATORIES.  a. Interrogatories to the jury will deal with questions of fact. They will not deal with questions of law, policy, or recommendations. The purpose of the interrogatories is to give the jury an opportunity to judge credibility and determine the significant factual issues involved in the inquest. To this end, it is expected that the jury would decide what actions occurred and, where appropriate what the actors thought or knew. Interrogatories shall not answer whether any person or agency is civilly or criminally liable.

In the Williams case, the critical question the prosecutor wants the inquest jury to answer is whether the officer believed the person who was killed posed “an imminent threat of serious physical harm to himself or others at the times [the officer] fired his weapon.” 

The rest of the 15 questions proposed by the prosecutor focus on whether Williams was holding a knife, whether the blade was open or closed, whether the officer told Williams to drop the knife and whether Williams “complied” with the order.  The limited nature of the questions at an inquest led respected civil rights attorney Lem Howell to comment in Anderson’s article that inquest verdicts may be "justified” but they are “not justice."  He has criticized inquests elsewhere as well

The ACLU has raised questions about the limitations of the inquest process for a long time.  In comments regarding the inquest into the police shooting of Aaron Roberts in 2001, ACLU-WA Executive Director Kathleen Taylor explained that “the current inquest system is out of date and rife with conflicts of interest.”

More recently, we blogged about how the inquest is only one part of what must be a larger process for seeking justice in response to a police-involved shooting.  We have suggested in the past, and it may be time again, to consider using an outside independent body to investigate officer-involved deaths. 

Meanwhile, the eyes of the community will be on the inquest into John T. Williams’ death.  It may or may not tell us whether the inquest process needs to be changed.