Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker still believes coroner inquests would effectively get information out to the public whenever police officers, jailers or deputies kill someone in their custody.
But he said he’s not prepared to do anything to make the inquests happen.
Spokane County Medical Examiner Dr. Sally Aiken said late last month that she doesn’t believe it’s her job to decide whether law enforcement officers acted appropriately during in-custody deaths. Turns out she’s right. The law says a six-person jury would do that, Tucker said.
Regardless, Aiken said she would support calling inquests only in those cases where the cause and manner of death remain in doubt.
“I can’t make her do it,” Tucker said of Aiken. “I can only suggest it. I don’t think she’s really inclined to do this too much because of a backlog of autopsies.”
Tucker said last August that he wanted to restore the practice of holding coroner inquests to honor the legacies of Venus Elder, 39, who died in 2004 in Geiger Corrections Center after jailers refused to give her prescribed medication, and Otto Zehm, a 36-year-old mentally ill janitor who died March 20, 2006, after a confrontation two days earlier with Spokane Police officers inside a local convenience store.
Under the inquest statute, a coroner or medical examiner can convene a public hearing in which six jurors consider autopsy results, police reports and testimony from witnesses. An attorney for the dead person’s family may have the chance to cross-examine the officers during the public hearing, which is directed by a deputy prosecutor.
A jury would then decide whether the officers were justified or should face charges. However, Tucker would retain the ability to charge or exonerate anyone involved.
“For public access to everything, I thought this would be a good thing. I still think that,” Tucker said.
But Tucker would not say whether he’s disappointed that Aiken remains reluctant to call an inquest.
“I think for now she is really hesitant to try one,” Tucker said. “She doesn’t have legal training, and that’s why I offered a deputy prosecutor to her.”
Tucker also said he would not try to put public pressure on Aiken to call an inquest.
“I’ve offered help. That’s as far as I’m going to go with someone I work with every day,” Tucker said. “It’s available, but it’s totally up to her.”
County Commissioner Todd Mielke agreed with Aiken’s position.
“The check and balance over law enforcement is more appropriately rested in the prosecutor’s office,” Mielke said in a written response to questions. “The medical examiner is not expected to know the intricacies of law, nor have investigative skill outside of forensic medicine. She should not be expected to interview witnesses, review non-medical facts and determine whether criminal charges should be filed.”
But former prosecutor Don Brockett and Tucker agree that Aiken’s only responsibility is to convene the inquest. Attorneys for both sides would take care of the rest. But Tucker does not agree with Brockett that the county should revert back to electing a coroner rather than a medical examiner who works at the pleasure of other county officials.
“Dr. Aiken is one of the best. She is great in court. We need to have her available,” Tucker said. “I just think (an inquest) would be a good thing for in-custody deaths. It would be beneficial to the public. But I imagine (Aiken) is fairly busy.”
Breean Beggs, of the Center for Justice, said he recently wrote Tucker a letter asking why he hadn’t sought any coroner inquests.
“The cause of death is generally a medical opinion,” Beggs said. “What are the facts? Who was involved? Who did what? That’s what the public wants to know. That’s our understanding that Tucker would be doing that in the future and we have been waiting for it.”
Beggs, who initially represented Otto Zehm’s mother, said he disagreed with Aiken’s view that inquests would be a waste of taxpayer funds if she has already determined how someone died.
“The public’s right to know is worth a lot when someone dies at the hands of a publicly paid official,” Beggs said. “So while there would be added expense, the value to the public that they have confidence in their law enforcement is probably worth it.”
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