December 19, 2010 in City

Recent police shootings raise notion of inquests

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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Background and the latest updates

Previous coverage

Wayne Scott Creach

Otto Zehm

Nearly four months after their father was shot to death by a deputy sheriff in Spokane Valley, sons of Wayne Scott Creach are still looking for answers.

Police detectives investigating the case told them in September to stop calling. They haven’t heard from prosecutors reviewing the circumstances surrounding the fatal Aug. 25 shooting. The deputy involved, Brian Hirzel, remains on desk duty until a decision is made about whether the shooting was justified.

Like many who have lost friends or loved ones to police shootings, the Creach family has become skeptical of the thoroughness of police investigations into fellow police officers. Sons of the 74-year-old pastor and business owner have hired a private investigator to look into that night, in which their father armed himself to check on a suspicious sedan in the parking lot of his nursery business. The sedan was an unmarked patrol car driven by Hirzel.

“We had claims of a baton strike and no evidence of a baton strike. We had questions that were not being answered,” Ernie Creach said. “So it was up to us to go find those answers. That’s why we went down this road.”

In some states, and many cities nationwide, questions like those would be explored in a coroner’s inquest, a quasi-legal hearing in which jurors evaluate the circumstances surrounding a specific death. States such as Montana and Nevada require the inquests in all fatal police shootings and other in-custody deaths.

But medical examiners in Spokane County have avoided them, and county commissioners have largely steered clear of the issue even though Prosecutor Steve Tucker publicly called for greater use of inquests in 2006 after the fatal Spokane police confrontation with Otto Zehm, the unarmed, mentally ill janitor mistakenly identified as a theft suspect. The last inquest conducted here was 29 years ago.

Washington law allows coroners and medical examiners to conduct inquests to determine the cause and circumstances surrounding a person’s death. While the inquests originated more than 1,000 years ago as a simple search for clues as to why someone died, they have been used most recently as a check and balance against law enforcement agencies investigating themselves.

“We had a protocol that we worked up, but we haven’t met on it for a while,” Tucker said last October. “We were actually looking at putting that in place.”

Tucker said Medical Examiner Dr. Sally Aiken was reluctant to use the process, but he was encouraged about the subsequent hiring of Dr. John Howard, who had presided over coroner inquests as recently as 2005 in Pierce County.

But Howard, who alternates with Aiken each year as medical examiner, said he would only support holding coroner inquests on rare occasions.

“If there is a compelling, specific reason that allows the inquest to gather information if there is no other way to get to it, maybe there is a good reason. Short of that, Dr. Aiken and I don’t see the need or the purpose for doing one,” Howard said.

Spokane attorney Breean Beggs for years has advocated for inquests.

“I think it would be helpful in this town because there is so much controversy about whether the investigations are objective or biased,” Beggs said. “Even if (police officials) are doing a good job investigating themselves, people wonder. Everyone has the goal that the public has greater confidence in the process.”

Spokane police Ombudsman Tim Burns said he plans to look into the issue of medical examiner’s inquests.

“To me, anytime you can have somebody with that skill set take a more critical look at those things, it would make sense,” Burns said.

He said the inquest process makes sense from a “best practices” standpoint because it provides additional checks and balances.

“I don’t have necessarily the authority to make it happen, but it’s certainly one of those things we’re interested in looking at,” he said.

Howard said medical examiners have used science and technology to determine causes of death and discounted any need for more public access to the process.

“Modern death investigation has evolved since the year 900, and there are means of scientifically answering these questions with a high degree of certainty that makes the inquest antiquated and unnecessary, and most places around the country don’t hold them,” Howard said.

Besides, if the public wants to know how someone died, they can simply go get a copy of someone’s death certificate, he said.

But Ernie Creach said the information provided by Howard on the death certificate is minimal and doesn’t explain many questions the family has.

“The reality is we see this as a murder,” Creach said. “The thing that frustrates us, the family and the whole community is that the police department and the sheriff’s department would have that same understanding if the investigation had been done right.”

Former Spokane County Prosecutor Don Brockett was involved the last time the county held an inquest, in 1981. He said in an earlier interview that the point of the proceeding, which allows six jurors to hear testimony about the medical evidence and testimony from witnesses, is to allow the public to view the total investigation.

“By showing all the facts and circumstances surrounding the manner of death, then the public can make up their minds themselves,” Brockett said. “Otherwise, you set up a situation where the public begins to believe that police are totally different than us in terms of having accountability for their actions.”

Ernie Creach said he would be leery of having any paid county employee conduct a coroner inquest, but he supports the idea of such hearings. “Any organization that is going to try to find the truth, I’m all for it.”

Tucker, who did not return phone messages over a period of weeks seeking comment for this story, has yet to make a charging decision in the Creach case. Alan Creach said Tucker promised to brief the family prior to a public announcement on charges. As of last week, that meeting had not taken place.

But even if Tucker – who hasn’t spoken to the medical examiners about inquests since 2007 – asked for a coroner inquest in the Creach case, Howard, the medical examiner, said he would be reluctant.

“I would certainly challenge (Tucker) about why he is interested in this particular case and what information does he think the inquest would provide that he doesn’t already have,” Howard said.

He’d also oppose any ordinance in Spokane County calling for coroner inquests for certain deaths, if county commissioners took that action.

“I would challenge the law, because it is at odds with state law,” Howard said. “If everybody wants to change state law to make some sort of inquest mandatory, go ahead.”

Spokane County Commission Chairman Mark Richard said he’s interested in exploring the idea of inquests further “to see if it has potential to add value to the judicial process or value to the public in terms of how they look at their local government. I certainly agree that at some point the public reaches a certain level of concern, and it’s valuable to give them more information.”

But he stopped short of saying Howard should call an inquest in the Creach case, which occurred in Richard’s district, or that the county should make them a common practice.

“I don’t think we can spend a bunch of money to build a process just to deliver some preliminary message to the community,” Richard said. “The judicial system has to play itself out.”

Richard was critical, though, of the time it has taken Tucker to make a charging decision, and suggested that the solution may be sending cases like Creach’s to outside agencies.

“Bottom line,” Richard said, “I think it comes down to Steve taking action on the case.”

Staff writer Meghann M. Cuniff contributed to this report.

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