Spokane County officials, rebuffed by their own medical examiner for years, want to take another look at using coroner inquests to help restore public trust in the integrity of investigations into police-involved fatalities without violating privacy protections.
Commissioner Todd Mielke said he supports providing more transparency to investigations that sometimes take months or even years for prosecutors to decide whether to pursue criminal charges. Prosecutor Steve Tucker, Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and other local law enforcement officials have in the past voiced support for broader use of coroner inquests, but county Medical Examiner Dr. John Howard opposes them.
“There is a different level of transparency that I think all of us come to expect when government is involved in the incident,” Mielke said. “Whether it’s a jail facility or officer in the field, I think … there is just a different threshold of review that needs to go into this stuff.”
The move comes after Knezovich expressed frustration last week that county attorneys were interpreting state privacy laws in a way that bars him from discussing how a kidnapping suspect killed by deputies in Spokane Valley over the summer suffered gunshot wounds to the back. Knezovich considers the actions of his deputies justified but said he’s prohibited from explaining why because it would require publicly discussing autopsy details that the county believes must be kept secret.
More than two dozen people across Spokane County have been killed by police or died in law enforcement custody since 2006. County prosecutors have cleared police in all of them, though they’re still reviewing the fatal Spokane Valley shooting.
Coroner inquests are quasi-judicial hearings in which the circumstances surrounding a death are publicly examined, and override any privacy statutes that authorities believe bar them from discussing police-involved fatalities. Some states require coroner inquests anytime someone dies in police custody, as does King County in Western Washington.
Spokane County’s medical examiner refuses to allow inquests, describing them in past interviews as unnecessary and outdated. Howard did not respond to a request for comment about inquests on Friday. The medical examiner serves at the pleasure of the county commission.
A longtime proponent of coroner inquests, Knezovich said he wants to improve transparency but has looked for ways to avoid a “battle royale” with Howard over inquests. As a result, Knezovich is working with Howard, Commissioner Al French, Spokane City Attorney Nancy Isserlis and state Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, to tweak the state law that compels medical examiners to keep autopsies secret.
The proposed change, which will get a committee hearing on Friday, would make autopsies public records if the person died in custody or in contact with law enforcement.
“I’m very much in favor of having these things reviewed in open public however we can get it done,” Knezovich said. “We need to do this so citizens understand what happened and deputies’ reputations are cleared.”
But embarking on an effort to persuade the Legislature to amend state law to address what’s perceived as a largely Spokane-centric problem also raises concerns, even among those who advocate greater police accountability.
Local attorney Breean Beggs, who has represented several families of those killed by police, believes it’s unnecessary to change the law in order to achieve the transparency needed in Spokane.
Beggs said county officials could easily follow the approach taken in Montana, Nevada and King County, which in 2002 made coroner inquests mandatory for all deaths resulting from contact with law enforcement.
“That would be extremely valuable on all fronts. Victims of law enforcement killings would get a chance to get information, and the general public would be able to satisfy themselves about what actually happened,” he said.
In coroner inquests, jurors are selected and the hearings are directed by deputy prosecutors. Witnesses and those involved are questioned under oath about what happened. The hearings could include medical evidence, and the dead person’s family would have a lawyer present who could also ask questions.
The jury then decides whether police actions were justified. However, the prosecutor would not be bound by the jury’s decision.
“It doesn’t take a lot of resources and it can be done quickly after the killing,” Beggs said. “The basis of our legal system is that the truth is more likely to come out during those circumstances than any other method.”
Absent inquests, the investigations remain secret for months and often contain omissions once they are released.
For example, the city’s Use of Force Commission hired an expert, Michel Gennaco, who took issue with Spokane police officials – including Ombudsman Tim Burns – for asking leading questions of the officers who shot 29-year-old Ethan A. Corporon on Nov. 12, 2010. Corporon appeared to be running into a restaurant with a shotgun.
Gennaco noted that two involved officers weren’t questioned for five months and then one of the officers couldn’t remember several key details.
“These leading questions which go to the heart of the reason for using deadly force or the officers’ tactical decision-making can be perceived as directing the officers to answer the question in a way that would legally justify their use of force,” Gennaco wrote.
Beggs said the problem highlighted by Gennaco was that detectives tend to ask questions that are important to their agenda.
“In coroner inquests, it’s citizens and victims who get to ask the questions,” Beggs said. “Everybody gets to participate, and the public gets to better understand what happened more quickly and not go through the lens of any particular agency or person.”
In the Sept. 5 fatal shooting in Spokane Valley, only one sheriff’s detective noted that 47-year-old Edward S. Gover had gunshot wounds in the back. Deputies Aaron Childress and Eric Werner both said Gover claimed he had a knife and advanced on them with something black and shiny in his hand.
The black item in Gover’s turned out to be a key fob. But the hundreds of pages of interviews included no questions of the deputies about how it was that Gover took two bullets to the back when he was described as advancing on deputies.
Knezovich claims that the explanation is simple but says he was advised that he could not discuss it.
“If it’s a good shoot, it’s a good shoot. If not, we’ll deal with it,” he said. “We need to get this information out there quicker so there is not all this controversy.”
Beggs said county commissioners could easily compel the medical examiner to hold inquests without going through the trouble of changing the law that keeps autopsies secret.
“It’s the same as lapel cameras” on officers, Beggs said. “It’s only going to help … because most (officers) are doing their jobs and telling the truth.”
French said he is going to study how King County made its decision, and Mielke said he wants to get all the stakeholders in the same room to discuss holding coroner inquests.
“I want to pull all the parties together and talk about why they think we are limited now in releasing some of this information,” Mielke said, “then take a closer look at what King County is doing and chart a direction from there.”