King County holds first police shooting inquest in four years

After years of legal challenges, King County resumed inquests into law enforcement-involved deaths. The first inquest hearing in four years involved the shooting of Damarius Butts, who was killed by Seattle Police in 2017.

An inquest is not a trial, but rather, an investigation into why a police shooting happened and how to prevent them. 

On April 20, 2017, police say 19-year-old Butts, his sister and a friend, stole beer and snacks from a 7-Eleven in Pioneer Square. The trio ran off when officers arrived, and police say Butts began firing at police. Officers fired back, shooting and killing Butts.

Three officers were shot and injured in the exchange of gunfire.  

Four officers took the stand on Wednesday, detailing what happened and how they responded. 

Inquests into fatal shootings by police in King County to resume

Inquests into fatal shootings by police can resume for the first time in three years in King County, and now will include far-reaching changes that had been opposed by county law enforcement agencies.

Officer Canek Gordillo, the first officer to fire at Butts, took the stand and described moments pulling another officer out of the line of fire after she got hit in the chest. He also re-enacted the moments when officer Hudson Kang got shot in the face and went down. 

"In that very moment, I thought he was dead. I was… I was so close [to Kang], but I couldn't cross the doorway because then I would just get shot. I didn't know who was behind me. I didn't know. There was just so little time to process it, I was completely overwhelmed. I remember screaming on the radio ‘shots fired, officer down,'" Gordillo recalled in an emotional testimony. 

In 2017, inquests were paused over concerns of transparency and clarity of the process—alleging rushed deadlines, access to witnesses and unwieldy orders issued by the inquest administrator.

King County Executive Dow Constantine issued executive orders in 2018 to overhaul the process, and ever since, the Washington Supreme Court has been battling to uphold these changes, with efforts hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The changes moved the inquest process out of the courts and prosecutor’s office and provided families with county-funded attorneys. It also allows for review of the department’s use-of-force policies, requires officers to testify and, for the first time in more than 40 years, including questions about whether the death involved criminality.

Butts' inquest is expected to last two weeks. Seven inquests are currently on the docket, including the police killing of Charleena Lyles, Isaiah Obet and others. 

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