Jury seated on day one of inquest into 2017 Seattle police shooting of black man
The first coroner’s inquest under King County’s recently overhauled process to review police-caused deaths opened Tuesday morning with the appointment of an eight-person jury and testimony from first witnesses.
The inquest, which will proceed much like a trial, will look into the fatal shooting of Damarius Butts, a 19-year-old Black man, by Seattle police on April 20, 2017. Butts died in a gunfight that left three officers injured after a robbery at a downtown convenience store. Four officers fired their weapons that day.
An internal review by police concluded that the shootings were reasonable and proportionate.
The jury, which includes two alternates, is made up of six white men, an Asian American man and a black woman. At the end of the proceedings, they will be asked to answer nearly 100 questions about whether officers followed policy and procedures or whether criminal means were involved in Butts’ death.
The proceedings began when inquest administrator Michael Spearman questioned several of the jurors about whether they had read or heard any media coverage of the shooting or the inquest process that might influence them. The inquest is taking place at Judge Patricia H. Clark Children and Family Justice Center in Seattle.
The first witnesses called to the stand said they saw a man later identified as Butts walking through downtown, shortly after police responded to the convenience store robbery.
Among those seated in the courtroom are Butts’ mother and grandmother, Stephanie Butts and Frances Butts. Also present are the four officers implicated in Butts’ death: Elizabeth Kennedy, Joshua Vaaga, Christopher Meyers and Canek Gordillo.
The inquest ends a nearly five-year hiatus in King County shooting investigations. The county’s charter — unique among Washington counties — requires a coroner’s jury to meet and review the facts and circumstances surrounding any death involving law enforcement.
Most other Washington counties rely on death investigations conducted by a coroner or medical examiner.
The newly expanded investigative process stems from reviews made in 2019 by King County Executive Dow Constantine, which were later overturned in August 2020 by a King County Superior Court judge, who ruled that the executive had overstepped his authority. Lawyers for the Butts family challenged that opinion, and in July 2021 a unanimous Washington Supreme Court not only reversed that decision, but further expanded the investigative process.
The changes were intended to rectify problems with a fact-finding system that has tilted heavily in favor of law enforcement over the years, according to Constantine and others. Before the inquest process was halted by Constantine in 2017, jurors were routinely asked to determine only whether the officer had reason to fear for their lives when they used lethal force.
Inquest jurors will now be allowed to review department policies and officers’ actions and determine whether any of the deaths involved “criminal means”. The new process also allows for the appointment of lawyers to represent families at hearings.
Also for the first time, the officers involved will be required to testify under oath before the jury. If they don’t want to answer a question, they’ll have to invoke their Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination before the inquest jury.
Under the old investigative process, officers could refuse to appear at the hearing.
According to investigative reports, Butts and his then 17-year-old sister stole donuts, chips, a 12-pack of beer and other beverages from a 7-Eleven store at 627 First Ave. When the clerk ran after them and grabbed his sister, Butts, revealed a gun in his belt and demanded the clerk let go, according to the criminal charges against his sister.
Officers on bikes quickly caught up with the siblings, who had given the stolen food to a third person, a 19-year-old man from Renton who was waiting outside the store, according to the charging documents.
As officers attempted to arrest Butts, his sister threw a bottle of soft drink which hit an officer in the head, then “punched the officer and attempted to place him in a choke hold… allowing his brother to go free,” according to the charges. .
The first witness to testify Tuesday was Melissa Miller, an employee of an architectural firm on Western Avenue near Madison Street. She said she was walking to her car when she heard a strange noise and looked up to see a young black man walking down Madison from First Avenue.
She said the man, identified as Butts, fumbled with something under his baggy t-shirt as he walked past her, then began running around the corner.
Miller said she looked up at Madison and saw two police officers with a young black woman lying on the ground. One of the officers, a woman, began to descend Madison after the young man.
Interviewed by Adrien Leavitt, an attorney representing the Butts family, Miller said she did not feel threatened by the young man and had never seen a gun.
At around 1:23 p.m., Butts drove past Officer Kennedy’s patrol car and headed for the loading area of the federal building at 909 First Ave., according to a Seattle police investigation report.
Kennedy jumped out of his patrol car and led a group of officers in pursuit of Butts.
“Show me your hands!” she shouted at Butts, her commands captured on her onboard video and audio system.
Kennedy chased Butts to the loading dock and into the building, with two other officers running behind her, according to the force report. She soon found herself in a small room with Butts.
In a statement she later provided to investigators, Kennedy said she thought at the time, “He’s not going to shoot me for a 6-pack of beers.”
Kennedy said she then heard a “very soft pop” and felt something hit her ballistic vest.
She said she fought back until Butts fell, according to the report.
Several other officers arrived, including Hudson Kang.
During his interview with investigators, Kang said he saw Butts lying on the ground, partially blocked by wooden pallets. Officers told Butts to “drop the gun,” Kang said.
“During this time I remember hearing a bang, a gunshot and I remember immediately feeling a pressure in my body, I thought I had been hit directly, uh, central mass, in the vest , because I remember feeling, like, a lot of energy in my chest,” Kang said.
The shot had actually hit him on the left side of his chin, knocking him down, according to the report.
Officer Vaaga told investigators he saw what he believed to be a flash of muzzle from behind the paddles and saw Kang fall to the ground with blood on his chin. Vaaga said he pointed his gun at Butts and fired.
Two other officers, Meyers and Gordillo, also opened fire, according to the force report.
In all, 18 shots were fired by Kennedy, Vaaga, Meyers and Gordillo, including 10 by Kennedy, the report said.
Two officers then pulled Kang out of the area.
Butts was pronounced dead at the scene by paramedics. A silver handgun was seen on the floor where Butts was lying, according to the report.
The Seattle Police Department’s Force Review Board later found the shooting to be reasonable and proportionate. The board also concluded that officers’ tactics and decision-making were matters of policy and training, according to the board’s written report.
Six other surveys are planned so far.