Inquest hearing for Kent man fatally shot by Seattle Police set for March

Four officers to testify in April 2017 shooting that killed Damarius Butts, 19

It appears a King County inquest hearing into the fatal shooting of Damarius Butts, 19, of Kent, will be held in March.

Seattle Police shot Butts just under five years ago when they responded to a reported convenience store robbery. Inquest Administrator Michael Spearman confirmed March 14-25 for the inquest hearing at a Jan. 14 pre-hearing conference, according to King County documents and recordings.

The hearing has been postponed a couple of times since the inquest process resumed in October 2021. The hearing was scheduled to run Jan. 24 to Feb. 4 but three attorneys involved in the case were unavailable on those dates due to a trial they are involved with.

The inquest hearing is expected to last two weeks and run from 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 4:30 p.m. weekdays. It is expected to be a virtual hearing due to COVID-19. The number of jurors on the inquest panel has yet to be decided.

Butts was killed April 20, 2017, by police in downtown Seattle after a reported armed robbery by Butts and his 17-year-old sister at a convenience store at 627 First Ave.

A store clerk told police he saw a man grab a 12-pack of beer, donuts and chips and leave without paying, according to court documents. The man had walked into the store with a female. When the pair left the store without paying, the clerk pursued them. The clerk knocked the beer out of the man’s hands, but the two continued to flee. The clerk grabbed the female, but Damarius Butts then displayed a silver pistol inside the area of his waist. The clerk let the girl go, returned to the store and called 911.

Officers responded, chased Butts and cornered him at the Federal Office Building, where gunshots were exchanged, according to police reports. Shots by Butts hit three officers, one critically, as Hudson Kang suffered a gunshot wound to the chin, according to the Seattle Times. Another officer was shot in the hand. A bullet lodged in the protective vest of Officer Elizabeth Kennedy, who suffered bruising.

Officers recovered a gun near the body of Butts, who died at the scene of multiple gunshot wounds. He was the father of a 1-year-old daughter at the time of his death.

The Seattle officers who fired shots and are involved in the inquest hearing include Kennedy, Christopher Myers, Joshua Vaaga and Canek Gordillo. They are represented by attorneys Evan Bariault and Ted Buck, each from the Seattle firm of Frey Buck P.S. The Seattle Police Department is represented by attorneys Ghazal Sharifi, Kerala Cowart and Tom Miller.

The mother of Damarius Butts is represented by attorneys Adrien Leavitt and La Rond Baker, each part of the King County Department of Public Defense.

A coroner’s inquest is required by King County law anytime a police officer kills somebody in the line of duty. The purpose of the inquest is to shed light on the facts surrounding a killing at the hands of law enforcement, according to the county website. A group of panelists will render verdicts setting out who was killed, as well as when, where, how, by whom, whether the killing was by criminal means, and to make relevant factual determinations including, but not limited to, whether the law enforcement officers complied with training and policy.

The inquest process, which had its last case in December 2017 (a Kent Police shooting of Giovonn Joseph-McDade), began again under the new guidelines with a pre-conference hearing Oct. 19, 2021 about the Butts case. Families of shooting victims had complained publicly that the process was weighted too heavily in favor of police and panelists always ruled in favor of the officers, who didn’t even have to testify.

The Washington State Supreme Court ruled in July 2021 in favor of the families of Butts, Charleena Lyles and Isaiah Obet that officers involved in their killings can be compelled to testify at inquests.

In addition to officers being required to testify, other changes include the appointment of an attorney to represent the family of those who were killed; a review of police department use-of-force policies; and questions about whether the death involved criminality.

In previous inquests, jurors only were asked whether officers believed the killings were necessary or whether officers believed they were in danger.

The state Supreme Court ruling put inquests back on the table after the process was tied up in the courts for a couple of years because of a lawsuit filed by the cities of Kent, Auburn, Federal Way and Renton that tried to stop an order by King County Executive Dow Constantine in 2018 to change the inquest process. City officials opposed several of the changes in an effort to help protect officers during the inquest, including that police policies and training should not be part of inquests.

At the pre-hearing conference Jan. 14 in the Butts case, attorneys for both sides discussed with Spearman the type of questions that should be asked to the inquest panel when it comes to officer training and policies. They also discussed whether each of the four officers should answer each question before moving on to the next question or if each officer goes through all the questions and then the next officer who testifies does the same thing.

“If we focus on one officer at a time, such as about use of force, we look at that officer and then the next question is the same to the next officer,” said Bariault, one of the attorneys for the officers. “With the scenario currently, we go through all facts and circumstances and back to each policy with each officer, and we have repetitive questions.”

Bariault suggested it would be easier for the inquest panel to digest if they look at facts and circumstances from each officer’s reply to the same question.

Baker, one of the attorneys for the Butts family, agreed it would be better not to go through the same questions over and over with each officer, but to let each of them respond.

“With so many officers involved, there are a lot of facts to find,” said Baker, who added to streamline questions and answers would be more acceptable to the panel.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated from an earlier version to clarify the number of officers shot during an exchange of fire with Butts.