State AG says it can’t investigate Lynnwood Jail death

Tirhas Tesfatsion’s family pushed Lynnwood leaders for an independent inquiry. Her death was ruled a suicide.

Tirhas Tesfatsion (GoFundMe)

Tirhas Tesfatsion (GoFundMe)

LYNNWOOD — The state Attorney General’s Office said Wednesday it can’t investigate the circumstances surrounding a woman’s death in the Lynnwood Jail earlier this month.

Tirhas Tesfatsion, 47, died July 13, less than 36 hours after being booked for investigation of DUI. The Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office determined she died by suicide.

Earlier this month, Lynnwood police asked the Kirkland Police Department to conduct an investigation into Tesfatsion’s death. Tesfatsion’s family said at a Monday rally that the inquiry doesn’t serve as true oversight. After two weeks, the investigation has concluded and findings were turned over Tuesday to the Snohomish County Prosecutor’s Office, Kirkland police Sgt. Dave Quiggle said.

Following calls from the family, the Lynnwood City Council passed a motion to formally request an independent investigation into her death by the state Attorney General’s Office.

But the attorney general does not have the authority to investigate Tesfatsion’s death, spokesperson Brionna Aho said in an email Wednesday.

“We legally cannot initiate a criminal investigation or prosecution without a referral from the county prosecuting attorney where the alleged crime occurred, or the governor,” she said. “We have received no such referral. A city council does not have statutory authority to grant us jurisdiction.”

The AG’s office also doesn’t have any “general commission peace officers,” Aho said.

“Consequently, we do not have the authority or personnel to initiate this type of criminal investigation even if we had jurisdiction, which we do not,” she added.

For example, the attorney general could only review Manuel Ellis’s death at the hands of Tacoma police after the Washington State Patrol conducted its investigation, Aho noted.

The Legislature passed a measure this year creating an Office of Independent Investigations to run inquiries into in-custody deaths. It is to begin conducting investigations into incidents after July 1, 2022.

Tesfatsion’s family and supporters packed City Hall on Monday as they pushed for answers into the death. The contentious meeting often erupted into jeers for city officials. The council was expected to vote on tens of millions of dollars in funding for a new Community Justice Center that would include a new jail for misdemeanor charges, the police department and a court. The crowd was vocal in its opposition of the new facility. That vote was pushed to Aug. 2.

The family and the dozens in the crowd said they would be back. But the City of Lynnwood announced Wednesday afternoon that city council meetings will be conducted remotely for the month of August following issues with teleconferencing technology and rising fears over renewed COVID-19 transmission.

Jake Goldstein-Street: 425-339-3439; Twitter: @GoldsteinStreet.

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