King County inquests into the deaths of people killed by police officers could resume shortly after King County Executive Dow Constantine issued an executive order to restart the fact-finding inquiries.
The Kent, Auburn and Federal Way police departments each have individual cases that were put on hold in 2018 by Constantine after complaints by relatives of those killed who expressed serious concerns about the inquest process in the county and the seeming lack of transparency and accountability.
Constantine then convened a community group to examine the process and suggest reforms. Many of those reforms were included in an executive order that went into effect in October 2018 but has not yet been used after lawsuits filed by the cities of Kent, Auburn, Federal Way and Renton against the changes.
On July 15, however, the Washington State Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling that upholds the county’s process for conducting inquests. Inquests are administrative, fact-finding inquiries into the causes and circumstances of a death at the hands of law enforcement,
“After years of delay, we can finally begin to deliver answers for the public, and for the families of those who have died in an interaction with the state,” Constantine said. “With today’s action, I am also directing our Inquest Program to move with all deliberate speed to restart inquests so that we can start to take steps toward clarity, accountability and closure.”
City officials argued that they wanted Constantine to restore an inquest process that is fair, transparent, just and legally acceptable within his authority.
In its ruling, the state Supreme Court said that members of the inquest panels can be asked to determine whether a person killed by law enforcement died by “criminal means.” The latest executive order brings King County’s inquest process into alignment with the court’s ruling and state law. Additionally, inquests can review policy and training of law enforcement, a critical component that can help inform policy and training to prevent future tragedy.
“I am so happy that these community driven changes are finally being instituted into law,” said Renton City Councilmember Ed Prince. “Thank you to Executive Constantine for fighting to make sure these changes stayed put. Now let’s help the families who have waited so long for closure get answers.”
DeVitta Briscoe, executive director of Not This Time, a community organization focused on reducing fatal police shootings, and an Inquest Review Committee member, supports the order.
“Not This Time applauds King County’s efforts to reform the inquest process and look forward to the reformed process that families have been waiting on for far too long,” Briscoe said. “I, and the many others who have lost a loved one at the hands of law enforcement, find some peace knowing that our hard fought victory will finally allow a fair, transparent, and public airing of the facts.”
Six inquests were called and ready to be heard when the process was brought to a halt by lawsuits challenging reforms that were detailed in a 2018 executive order, Sixteen more cases are in the queue. Now that the legal challenges to the process have been settled, inquests will resume as soon as scheduling with involved parties permits, according to county officials.
Six inquest cases on hold
• Damarius Butts
Seattle Police Department
Date of incident: April 20, 2017
Butts, of Kent, died from multiple gunshot wounds after a reported shootout with Seattle Police on April 20 when he fled after allegedly robbing a 7-Eleven store, 627 First Ave., in downtown Seattle.
• Isaiah Obet
Auburn Police Department
Date of incident: June 10, 2017
Police say the Officer Jeffrey Nelson shot Obet after the 25-year-old man entered a home armed with a knife and later tried to carjack an occupied vehicle. Nelson shot Obet once in the chest and once in the head. The city settled a lawsuit in 2020 brought by the family for $1.25 million. Nelson has been charged with murder in another case, the death of Jesse Sarey.
• Charleena Lyles
Seattle Police Department
Date of incident: June 18, 2017
Lyles, 30, was shot seven times in her Seattle apartment by two Seattle Police officers. Officers fired after they said Lyles threatened them with a knife.
• Eugene Nelson
Kent Police Department
Date of incident: Aug. 9, 2017
Nelson, 20, died from multiple gunshot wounds after he allegedly tried to flee in a vehicle while dragging an officer in the 23600 block of 104th Avenue Southeast.
• Robert Lightfeather
Federal Way Police Department
Date of incident: Oct. 30, 2017
Lightfeather, 33, died of multiple gunshot wounds from a shooting at South 316th Street and Pacific Highway South outside the Elephant Car Wash. Federal Way police responded to a 911 caller who reported seeing a man pointing a gun at two men.
• Curtis Elroy Tade
Kirkland Police Department
Date of incident: Dec. 19, 2017
Tade, 47, was fatally shot when Kirkland Police responded to the Emerson Apartments after residents heard screams and possible gunshots. Tade, who was reportedly carrying an assault rifle, died from multiple gunshot wounds, shots fired by at least one officer.
This story originally appeared in the Bothell-Kenmore Reporter, a sister publication to The Herald.