It’s going on nearly five years after the fatal shooting of Damarius Butts, 19, of Kent, by Seattle police before his family receives a King County coroner’s inquest into the killing.
The Washington State Supreme Court ruled in July 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. That 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.
A coroner’s inquest is required by 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 jury 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 (Kent police shooting of Giovonn Joseph-McDade), began again under the new guidelines with a pre-conference hearing Oct. 19 about the Butts case. Families of shooting victims had complained publicly that the process was weighted too heavily in favor of police.
But a date for when the Butts inquest will go before a jury remains undetermined due to attorney conflicts with other trials. The inquest also is scheduled to be done over Zoom rather than in a courtroom due to COVID-19 restrictions in King County Superior Court as well as a large backlog of criminal cases put on hold by the pandemic.
After talking with attorneys for Butts and the city of Seattle, Inquest Administrator Michael Spearman told both sides the inquest might start in December or be pushed out until March.
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. Butts suffered multiple gunshot wounds. Butts wounded four officers, one critically. Officers recovered a gun near the body of Butts.
Evan Bariault, an attorney hired by the city of Seattle to defend the officers in the case, told Spearman that he might have a conflicting trial in December. He expects to know by the end of October whether there’s a conflict with the potential inquest starting dates of Dec. 6 or Dec. 13.
Bariault also told Spearman he has a potential six-week case starting in January involving the downtown Seattle crane collapse in 2019.
“My only concern is if we don’t do it in December or January, we are looking at March,” Spearman said. “We’ve been waiting on this case for a long time. Two years from the initial week to begin the inquest and then another two-year delay. I want it to go forward as quickly as possible. …anyone think this can be done in less than two weeks?”
Bariault said he had his doubts.
“I’d like to think so, but not knowing how this will go over Zoom, I don’t know the number of witnesses, whether jurors can call witnesses. …there are a lot of questions up in the air,” Beriault said. “There are unknowns at this point so I can’t say for certain.”
La Rond Baker, an attorney for the family of Butts, agreed scheduling challenges make it tough to find a start date.
“The family of Damarius wants the inquest to move forward,” Baker said. “They’ve waited a very long time for this and want it to go forward as soon as possible. In two weeks to be done, I don’t know, that seems aspirational. We could call a recess, but that could be a month and a half, so that doesn’t seem practical.”
Spearman asked the attorneys to block out the first two weeks of December for a potential start date, and if that doesn’t work, then the second or third week of March the inquest would begin. That would be one month short of five years since the fatal shooting.
Five other inquests
Five other inquests remain to be scheduled:
■ Isaiah Obet, killed June 10, 2017, by Auburn police.
■ Charleena Lyles, killed June 18, 2017, by Seattle police.
■ Eugene Nelson, killed Aug. 9, 2017, by Kent police.
■ Robert Lightfeather, killed Oct. 30, 2017, by Federal Way police.
■ Curtis Tade, killed Dec. 19, 2017, by Kirkland police.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a clarification of the gunfire exchange between Butts and Seattle Police officers.