Lawyers representing Charles Lyles (center) hold a press conference outside SPD headquarters. Photo by Sara Bernard

Lawyers for Father of Charleena Lyles File Wrongful Death Suit, Call Inquest a ‘Sham’

The suit is against the two SPD officers who shot her. The City of Seattle will be added later.

The law firm representing Charleena Lyles’ father filed a wrongful death lawsuit Friday morning in King County Superior Court against the two Seattle police officers, Jason Anderson and Steven McNew, who killed the young mother of four in her home on June 18. The civil suit alleges that the officers’ actions were “unreasonable” and “negligent” and in violation of both the Washington State Constitution as well as the Washington Law Against Discrimination. Shooting Lyles “constitutes recklessness, deliberate indifference and/or wanton and willful misconduct in regard to her constitutional rights,” the suit reads.

Charles Lyles, who has been court-appointed as the representative of his daughter’s estate and thus is filing this suit for the benefit of her four children, said during a press conference outside Seattle Police Department headquarters, “I just hope something can be done for my grandkids.” Any damages won in the suit would go directly to them. “Her kids were right there in the same room when they seen her mother die,” he said. “Her kids got to deal with that for the rest of their life, the thought of their mother dying in front of them like that for no reason at all! … I just want something to be done about the situation for her kids’ sake.”

Friday’s filing does not make allegations against the City of Seattle. Suing a government entity is different than suing an individual, one of Lyles’ attorneys, Karen Koehler, explained; it requires a claim to be filed before an actual lawsuit. Lyles’ legal team did file a claim against the City of Seattle a few weeks ago, and the city has 60 days from the filing date to respond. It hasn’t responded yet, according to Koehler. When it does, Lyles’ lawyers will add the City of Seattle to the list of defendants on the suit.

The reason they’re moving ahead now, and not waiting on the city, is that they believe the issue is urgent. “We choose not to wait around,” Koehler said. She claimed that the city has repeatedly promised her team information from its investigation into the killing, but has yet to deliver. “We believe that it is important that we swiftly act, we act now, and we stop waiting for them to do what’s right. … That is why the lawsuit will be filed in stages, and this is stage number one.”

Added Travis Jameson, another attorney representing Lyles: “We know, or we strongly suspect, that this case is an onion, and the deeper we dig, the more disturbing facts are going to come to light.” He underscored the team’s efforts toward transparency, pointing out that they, and not the city, recently made documents public that showed that Charleena Lyles was not any drug or medication at the time of the shooting and that she was shot seven times, four of those in the back. It is crucial, he said, that “these officers be called before a court of law to account for all of the questions that this community has that have gone unanswered. And by filing it now and by pushing it forward now, we can start that clock sooner.

“Make no mistake,” he continued, as if speaking directly to officers Anderson and McNew, “we will thoroughly and completely examine you to uncover what’s in your hearts and in your minds and to answer the questions that are plentiful.” Among them: “What about the knowledge that these officers had, and their responsibility to de-escalate? What about the knowledge they had about the officer safety warning, the mental health warning?” (According to information released by SPD, the two officers knew that Lyles struggled with mental health issues, and that on June 5, other officers had gone to her house and successfully de-escalated a situation in which she armed herself with metal shears.) There is “no evidence that we have that these officers went in there intending to harm Charleena,” Jameson said, “but there are questions that have to be answered and only these officers can answer them.”

Once the two officers are served with the lawsuit’s summons and 120 days have passed, they will be compelled to provide video depositions to Lyles’ legal team.

The lawyers were also adamant Friday about how inadequate and unfair they find King County’s inquest process into officer-involved shootings to be. As a result, they said, they will not be participating in it in any way. “It is a sham proceeding,” said Koehler, and “fundamentally unfair. It is stacked completely against the victim and their family, and stacked completely in favor of the officers and departments that are under review.” To participate, she said, “would be literally endorsing a fake proceeding. We will not do that.”

This decision drew some criticism, however, from other members of Charleena Lyles’ family, who say that they will be participating in the inquest. According to a statement released by attorney Corey Guilmette, who is representing Lyles’ three siblings and two of her cousins, “family participation in the inquest is essential. … If the family does not participate in the inquest, the public will only hear a one-sided story in the inquest, told by the attorneys representing the officers who killed Charleena. Civil suits often settle before trial, leaving the inquest as the only opportunity for family members to publicly question police officers who killed a loved one.”

But Charles Lyles’ legal team is firm in its stance. The team sent a letter to King County Executive Dow Constantine and Mark Larson, Chief Deputy of the Criminal Division of the King County Prosecutor’s Office, confirming as much. “An inquest in this case will never result in the pressing of criminal charges against either officer,” the letter reads. It also includes a lengthy quote from the ACLU of Washington explaining its point of view that “the flaws in the inquest procedure used in King County have been well documented for decades.” An inquest jury, the ACLU alleges, hears only about where, when, and by what means a person was killed by a cop; they hear nothing about what alternatives may have been available to the officers and what training they had, and no lawyer is able to argue his or her opinion of the evidence to the jury.

The prosecutors leading the inquest “get to choose the witnesses, they get to choose what documents we get, they get to choose what questions we can ask,” Koehler said, “and the questions that have been historically asked in inquests do not serve the person who’s trying to figure out what happened.”

Koehler also said she’d spoken with Executive Dow Constantine about the County’s inquest process, which other critics have also found to be unjust; she claims that “he told me he understands it’s faulty, he knows that it doesn’t work, but he hasn’t taken any steps to fix it, and he hasn’t indicated when if ever he’s gonna fix it.”

Seattle Weekly asked Constantine’s office for comment. A spokesperson wrote via e-mail that “the Executive has noted in the past that the inquest process could be improved to better satisfy the public and address any potential law enforcement training or policy changes. The Executive’s Office is currently putting together a framework to gather public input to review and make recommendations on the inquest process.” According to Guilmette’s statement, in fact, representatives of Charleena’s siblings and cousins will be meeting with the Executive’s Office next week to discuss such recommendations.

In the meantime, according to Charles Lyles’ lawyers, this lawsuit is the best and quickest way to get the kind of information they’re seeking.

“Mr. Lyles … wants to know what happened. He doesn’t want to hear a bunch of double speak,” Koehler said. “We want to know what happened and the only way we can ever find that out is by doing what we’re doing, by filing a civil lawsuit.”

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