King County inquests into deaths caused by law enforcement officers will resume this week with a hearing about the 2017 fatal shooting of Damarius Butts, 19, of Kent, by the Seattle Police Department.
The inquests had been delayed more than four years by lawsuits after King County Executive Dow Constantine in 2018 paused inquests to address concerns of fairness and transparency and pushed forward with a new process built on stakeholder and community input.
When local jurisdictions, including the cities of Kent, Auburn, Federal Way and Renton, challenged the new process in court, the new program was delayed until the Washington Supreme Court reaffirmed the executive’s order in July 2021. With the legal challenges concluded, King County is set to resume the inquests to provide clarity, accountability and closure to the public and to the families of those killed by law enforcement.
“The road has been long, but I am thankful we can begin conducting inquests and providing the public with answers,” Constantine said in a Monday, March 14 news release. “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.”
Inquest Program staff have been engaged over the last several months to implement the executive order and develop new procedures for conducting inquests, including scheduling and pre-inquest hearings, according to the news release. This work was complicated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced nearly all work to happen virtually.
The purpose of an inquest is to shed light on the facts and circumstances surrounding a death at the hands of law enforcement and facilitate public understanding of these events. At the conclusion of the proceedings, an inquest jury answers a series of questions called interrogatories as directed by the inquest administrator. These interrogatories result in the issuance of a series of findings. The findings may include whether the law enforcement officers acted in line with their agency’s policies and training and whether the death was a result of criminal means.
The proceedings in the Butts inquest will begin at 9 a.m. Tuesday, March 15 and are expected to last two weeks, according to the news release. Michael Spearman, a retired King County Superior Court and Washington Court of Appeals judge, will serve as the inquest administrator.
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.
Currently, there are seven inquests called. Two inquests, in the deaths of Albert Fredericks and Robert Lightfeather, are expected to move forward in the next several months, according to the news release. Others will soon follow. Dozens of cases are still under review by the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office for referral to the executive for inquest proceedings to be ordered.
The Lightfeather case involves the Federal Way Police Department. In October 2017, Lightfeather, 33, died of multiple gunshot wounds from a shooting at South 316th Street and Pacific Highway South outside the Elephant Car Wash. Federal Way police responded to a 911 caller who reported seeing a man pointing a gun at two men.
Other inquests include the fatal shooting of Isaiah Obet, 25, by the Auburn Police Department in June 2017. Police say the officer shot Obet after the man entered a home armed with a knife and later tried to carjack an occupied vehicle.
The Kent Police Department also is subject to an inquest in the fatal shooting of Eugene Nelson, 20, in August 2017. Nelson died from multiple gunshot wounds after he allegedly tried to flee in a vehicle while dragging an officer in the 23600 block of 104th Avenue Southeast.
The Kirkland Police Department is on the inquest list for the fatal shooting of Curtis Tade, 47, in December 2017.
Butts inquest hearing
King County officials said they are committed to an open, public process includes making available documents relating to each inquest. While a permanent storage system is under development, a Document Library for the Butts inquest are available on the inquest page. Future inquest pages will be updated to include all available documents as well.
All inquests are live streamed for public transparency.
• Damarius Butts inquest hearing
• March 15-25, 9 a.m. to noon, 1 to 4:30 p.m. weekdays