Inquests are standard when a law enforcement officer kills someone in the line of duty, but in King County, the process has been on hold for the last three years.
That changed today when King County Executive Dow Constantine signed an executive order reviving inquests under new rules asked for by families and recently approved by the state Supreme Court.
The new inquest rules are born of frustration with cases like that of Che Taylor’s five years ago. Under the old rules, an inquest jury agreed that Seattle officers feared for their lives when they shot and killed him. But later, a federal judge expressed doubts that Taylor actually had a gun on him when he was shot.
DeVitta Briscoe is Taylor’s sister. “The inquest process that we went through was biased, it was unethical, it was unfair,” she said.
But now, a state Supreme Court ruling says police officers can be required to testify at inquests, and that inquest juries can determine whether officers used criminal means.
“That’s huge, that is huge for families who want to know what happened to their loved one and who also believe that there may have been criminal culpability,” Briscoe said.
Constantine today signed an executive order implementing the inquest changes he originally ordered three years ago after listening to families seeking justice.
“It seeks to establish what could be done, what could be changed to prevent this tragedy from repeating itself,” he said.
Among family members standing with Constantine was Rick Williams, the brother of John T Williams, who was shot and killed by a Seattle Police officer 11 years ago next month. The case sparked a federal lawsuit over Seattle police practices. But after an inquest under the old procedures, prosecutors didn’t file any charges.
“I keep in my heart prayers that it will work, the changes, because it was it took a lot out of us for what we’ve been through, what we’ve lived through,” Williams said.
But a lawyer who’s represented officers in more than two dozen inquests is concerned that the new inquest rules compromise an officer’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
“Then you may as well make it a full criminal proceeding, but that’s not what it is. It’s some kind of a hybrid now,” Anne Bremmer said when the Supreme Court released its ruling two weeks ago.
Constantine says, “The officers’ rights against self-incrimination are unchanged. The constitution cannot be overwritten by state law by a county executive’s order.”
And family members believe they have a greater chance of receiving justice.
“These are all significant reforms that will allow for more transparency, more accountability and more faith in the inquest process,” said Briscoe.
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