THE AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES Union has joined a growing chorus of critics pushing for reform of King County's inquests into cop-related killings. King County Executive Ron Sims is now setting up a committee to study possible changes, but for the moment insists the inquest system is "fair and impartial."
Inquests, the verdicts of which are only advisory, are called whenever death results from actions by one of the approximately 3,000 state, county, city, and suburban police and custody officers working in King County. Under the scrutiny of a judge, the King County prosecutor's office presents facts to a jury that in turn renders a judgment on whether the death was justified. Under the 22-year reign of King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng, none of an estimated 100 inquests has led to the charging of a law enforcement officer, even though some victims were unarmed and shot at close range.
Critics say the process is biased in favor of police officers because the cases are investigated by fellow cops and presented to the court by their fellow law enforcement partner, the county prosecutor, who has great sway in the courtroom. During a recent inquest of a man shot in the back of the head by a Seattle officer, for example, prosecutors sided with the officer to successfully exclude the testimony of the only contrary witness, a forensics expert who claimed the shooting didn't happen as police said ("Open and shot case," SW, 5/18).
Last month in Seattle, a mentally ill black man, David Walker, was shot and killed while carrying a knife, sparking new calls from black leaders for inquest revisions. (Of 33 people who died at Seattle police hands—shot or choked—since 1980, 19 were white and 14 were minorities.)
The NAACP and local bar officials have been seeking changes in the inquest system since last fall, and the ACLU renewed the call two weeks ago in a letter to Sims. Citing a Seattle Weekly report ("License to kill," 11/4/99), the ACLU's Gerard Sheehan wrote, "Although it may be credibly argued that few police officers use excessive force that results in death, it can not be credibly argued that it never happens."
The Weekly revealed that despite widely varying circumstances in each case, the juries found the killings by cops justified in every King County District Court inquest in modern memory, save for a few ending without findings of any sort. Critics think the prosecutor uses those "biased" outcomes as an excuse to avoid filing charges.
SHEEHAN SAYS the "initial problem" with inquests is that the prosecutor is the sole presenter of evidence. Especially when "a deputy sheriff is the shooter," he says, "the potential for civil liability against the county gives rise to the most obvious conflict of interest for the prosecutor's office." He noted also that the system doesn't allow the questioning of jurors for biases, provide for closing summations, or allow fair representation of the victim's family. (Some police officers feel the system is unfair to them, as well.)
Sims' spokesperson Elaine Kraft says the county exec hasn't yet responded to the ACLU. But earlier this month Sims informed the NAACP that a panel of law enforcement representatives and community members would be formed to study the "perception of unfairness" of inquests. However, he told NAACP leader Oscar Eason Jr., "I do not intend to recommend changes for the Walker inquest, which is already scheduled. . . . I am confident that the current procedures will afford a fair and impartial inquest."