January 22, 2011 in City, Opinion

Inquests put truth in focus

Breean Beggs Special to The Spokesman-Review
 
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Let 2011 be the year that We the People in Spokane take back control of answering when homicides by law enforcement are justified.

Many communities use coroner inquest juries to decide whether or not law enforcement personnel were justified in killing a person. This is a prompt, inexpensive and unbiased method of deciding a host of troubling questions that have divided and inflamed our community. Inquest juries are superior to lawsuits and criminal prosecutions because they simply focus only on answering what happened, not the consequences.

Here are just a few questions that a Spokane County jury could answer for our community:

Was Scott Creach murdered by a deputy sheriff, or was he justifiably killed while trying to shoot an officer? Did Otto Zehm cause his own death, or was he killed by excessive force? Did Josh Levy commit suicide, or was he chased off the Monroe Street Bridge by officers? Was Jeremy Groom justifiably shot by officers while he pointed a gun at a bystander, or should he have been given more time to lower his weapon? Were the officers who shot and killed Quentin Dodd justified by the sharpened obsidian rock he held in his hand, or should they have used alternative means to respond to his behavior?

Spokane County’s current system of ignoring coroner inquests requires families to sue officers involved in these deaths or a prosecutor to attempt to put an officer in jail before these questions are answered. These types of complex civil and criminal trials put millions of dollars or a person’s freedom at issue. As a result, they cost a lot of money and take years to complete.

There is no money or prison time at issue in a coroner’s inquest trial – just the truth of what happened. Thus, the inquests can be held promptly and quickly with little pretrial discovery.

Both the family of the decedent and the law enforcement officers have the opportunity to be heard by the jury along with any independent witnesses. Any truth revealed can be used by prosecutors to inform them on whether or not to bring criminal charges, but they don’t result in a conviction because they are not decided beyond a reasonable doubt. The officers also retain their full union rights in responding to any discipline proposed by management.

Most importantly, coroner’s inquests empower juries of our fellow citizens to decide who is telling the truth and what our community values are in keeping the peace. The current practice of letting secret internal affairs investigations and a reluctant prosecutor answer these questions is not working for anyone and has degraded the community’s trust in its peace officers. This hurts the community and the men and women who risk their lives for the community.

Our newly constituted Board of County Commissioners can easily pull back the current veil of secrecy regarding law enforcement homicides by passing an ordinance to require coroner inquest juries in all deaths involving law enforcement. 2011 could be the year that We the People of Spokane County decide who is telling the truth and how best to implement our values in keeping the peace and safety of the entire community.

Breean Beggs is a local civil rights attorney who is representing the families of Otto Zehm and Joshua Levy in claims against law enforcement.


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