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Police chief, sheriff open to jury inquests

Sun., Feb. 20, 2011

No ‘political will’ among leaders, Kirkpatrick says

Spokane police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick endorses conducting jury inquests into cases where someone dies while in contact with law enforcement, but she cautions, “Our politics in this community does not.”

Kirkpatrick first voiced support for the inquests at a city-sponsored public forum on violence and became the first law enforcement official to endorse the idea since Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker in 2006.

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich on Friday said he also supports inquests.

“It’s just another avenue for fact-finding,” Knezovich said. “I don’t have any issues with fact-finding.”

County medical examiners Sally Aiken and John Howard, who are charged with calling the inquests if they see fit, say they have no need for regular inquests. A bill proposed in the state Legislature, Senate Bill 5270, would allow county prosecutors to recommend that coroners or medical examiners call the inquests. Knezovich said he supports the bill.

“It’d be a way to make sure the public can have a little bit more of an idea with what goes on inside these investigations,” Knezovich said. “I don’t know why we don’t use (inquests.)”

Inquests are quasi-judicial hearings where six jurors hear medical evidence about a death and witnesses testify about the circumstances surrounding the event. King County generally conducts them in every fatal police shooting. Montana requires them for all deaths in law enforcement custody. Spokane County last conducted one in 1981.

“The decision-maker(s) in this case as to whether Spokane would use an inquest system have declined to do so, so far,” Kirkpatrick wrote in an e-mail. “That is the political will at this time.”

Attorney Breean Beggs, an advocate of inquests, said the results of the probe into the shooting of woodcarver John T. Williams by Seattle police Officer Ian Birk shows how well they work.

“They did a coroner’s inquest and the jury made some findings,” Beggs said. “The result of that was that he was not being charged criminally, but he was removed from his job. The answer was so much quicker instead of the community agonizing over each event over a matter of years.”

Beggs said that if local officials had called an inquest into the 2006 death of Otto Zehm, the question of whether Spokane police were justified in their actions would already be answered. The case is currently set for trial.

“If you don’t use coroner inquests then you are depending solely on one person, the elected prosecutor, who most of the time is depending on these law enforcement officers to assist him in prosecutions,” Beggs said. “There is a perception from the public that he may or may not be fair. If you have a coroner inquest, you take that whole piece out of it.”

Beggs was in attendance when Kirkpatrick made her comment in support of inquests.

Kirkpatrick expanded that comment this week: “I support the inquest system because it allows for a jury of peers (the community) to weigh in on the evidence of a case. It is a very transparent system,” she wrote in the e-mail. “Under the current system, the public has total access to an entire case once it is forwarded to the Prosecutor’s office. Both systems give complete access of the records.”

Beggs said he is glad Kirkpatrick supports the concept.

“I haven’t heard anyone else in law enforcement or the prosecutor’s office say that it is a bad idea,” he said. “But who had the political juice to do it?”

Beggs believes the answer lies in the Spokane County Commission. In King County, commissioners passed an ordinance allowing for the county executive to call inquests if recommended by prosecutors. The county typically holds inquests into officer-involved shootings; a lawyer for the family of the deceased is allowed to participate.

Howard said a couple of months ago that he only supports inquests – which he has presided over in Pierce County – when such a hearing would assist in finding the cause of someone’s death, which he said is rarely in doubt.

But Beggs said the purpose of most coroner inquests is to determine the circumstances surrounding a death.

“That’s better suited to a jury based on our democratic form of government,” he said. “They hear all the evidence and decide what likely happened.”

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