OLYMPIA, Wash. - After years of legal challenges, King County will resume inquests into law enforcement-involved deaths. Their first inquest hearing will be the shooting of Damarius Butts, killed by Seattle Police in April 2017.
Inquests are "administrative, fact-finding" requests from the county coroner into the circumstances of a death. King County’s charter requires an inquest jury review of any death caused by police.
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, include questions about whether the death involved criminality.
Five of the county’s largest law enforcement agencies challenged Constantine’s order, alleging he overstepped his authority.
In 2021, after the Supreme Court upheld the changes, Constantine signed an executive order to resume inquests.
"The road has been long, but I am thankful we can begin conducting inquests and providing the public with answers," said Constantine. "The pandemic and legal challenges aside, building a process that the public can have faith in has been a difficult but necessary task, and I hope it can provide closure in these difficult and heartbreaking cases."
Now, seven inquests are on the docket, including the police killing of Damarius Butts, Charleena Lyles, Isaiah Obet and others.
The Damarius Butts inquest hearing will begin Tuesday morning and is expected to last two weeks.
Inquests into the deaths of Albert Fredericks and Robert Lightfeather will move forward in the next several months, the county executive’s office says.
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