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Seattle man accused of killing one protester and injuring another on I-5 enters not-guilty pleas

UPDATED: Wed., July 22, 2020

Dawit Kelete, looks toward his attorney, Francisco Duarte, left, as he appears in King County Superior Court on Wednesday in Seattle for his arraignment on felony charges of vehicular homicide, vehicular assault and reckless driving. (Ted S. Warren)
Dawit Kelete, looks toward his attorney, Francisco Duarte, left, as he appears in King County Superior Court on Wednesday in Seattle for his arraignment on felony charges of vehicular homicide, vehicular assault and reckless driving. (Ted S. Warren)
By Sara Jean Green Seattle Times

Dawit Kelete, a 27-year-old man accused of striking two protesters earlier this month after driving around barricades and using an off-ramp to drive onto southbound Interstate 5, killing one demonstrator and critically injuring another, entered not-guilty pleas in a 7-minute court appearance on Wednesday.

But before Kelete, of Seattle, was led into the courtroom in red jail garb, his defense attorney and an attorney representing the family of Summer Taylor, who died hours after being hit on July 4, and Diaz Love, who remains hospitalized, faced off over whether the media would be allowed to photograph the defendant.

While arraignments are typically brief hearings, with criminal defendants confirming their identities, hearing the charges against them and usually entering not-guilty pleas, Kelete’s arraignment bore a resemblance to opening statements in a criminal trial.

Defense attorney Francisco Duarte argued Kelete should not be photographed or video-recorded by the media, saying misinformation has been circulating that “this was an intentional act.”

“He himself has been a member and supporter of Black Lives Matter. In no way should these proceedings be turned into a political statement,” Duarte said of his client, adding it’s clearly important “in our society today to have equal justice for Black folks in this country.”

While Senior Deputy Prosecutor Amy Freedheim didn’t take a position on Duarte’s motion to bar photography, attorney Karen Koehler, who represents Taylor’s family, Love and nearly a dozen other protesters who were injured by Seattle police during recent demonstrators, objected.

“This collision occurred on a public highway. Two victims were thrown in the air like rag dolls,” said Koehler, noting the public interest in the case and that videos of the collision have been widely seen. “We don’t know what the motivation was of the defendant.”

The Seattle Times also objected to Duarte’s motion.

King County Superior Court Chief Criminal Judge Patrick Oishi ultimately denied the motion, saying the rights of the public and media outweighed Kelete’s concern about being photographed.

Kelete, who remains jailed in lieu of $1.2 million bail, is charged with vehicular homicide, vehicular assault and reckless driving. Duarte entered not-guilty pleas to the charges on Kelete’s behalf.

Should Kelete post bail, he was ordered not to leave the state without the court’s permission, not to drive without a valid license and interlock device, to use no non-prescribed drugs and not to possess firearms.

According to charging papers, Kelete was arrested at 1:50 a.m. on July 4 after he drove a white Jaguar XJL the wrong way up the Stewart Street exit ramp and onto the freeway, which had been closed by Washington State Patrol for what had become nightly protests and marches in support of Black Lives Matter.

Traveling at what charges say were “freeway speeds,” the car swerved around a barricade of demonstrators’ vehicles and drove into a group of pedestrian protesters as people screamed and yelled, “Car!” Taylor, 24, and Love, 32, were unable to get out of the way and were struck and thrown several yards into the air.

(Taylor and Love both use they/them pronouns.)

“Mx. Taylor and Mx. Love were struck in the center of the car and were thrown up and over the car. Mx. Taylor suffered catastrophic injuries. With their family by their side, Mx. Taylor died at 6:32 p.m.,” the charges say.

Taylor would have turned 25 this Sunday.

Love, who the charges say suffered internal injuries and multiple fractures to their legs and arm, was listed in satisfactory condition on Wednesday, said Harborview spokesperson Susan Gregg.

Following Kelete’s arraignment, a couple hundred people gathered in the park next to the King County Courthouse, where Taylor’s mother Dalia and brother Luke were tearfully embraced by young people who have participated in the same protests against racial injustice and police brutality that Taylor was so committed to. Flowers and tea lights encircled a tree in the park, where Taylor’s name was written in colored chalk on the paving stones.

“I am shocked at the hatred towards this movement … and this hatred is possibly responsible for the death of my child,” Dalia Taylor told the gathering.

In addition to the criminal charges filed against Kelete, Dalia Taylor said she is determined to “hold all the parties responsible who contributed to Summer’s death,” and accused police of failing to protect Summer and other protesters.

Koehler, representing Taylor’s family from the law firm Stritmatter Kessler Koehler Moore, filed claims against the city of Seattle, King County and Washington state, on behalf of several protesters or their families last week, alleging excessive force by police or the failure of police to secure the safety of peaceful protesters.

The claims, which the city, county and state have 60 days to respond to, are the first step in filing lawsuits against the government.

“If the officers had been more neutral and less resentful toward protesters, this tragedy would not have happened,” Dalia Taylor said.

Taylor said an offensive meme allegedly posted to social media by a King County Sheriff’s deputy “on the day my baby died” was extremely hurtful.

The deputy was placed on administrative leave and the sheriff’s office continues to investigate.

As Dalia and Luke Taylor were hugged by well-wishers, the crowd engaged in a call-and-answer chant:

“Summer season!”

“All year!”

“Endless…”

“Summer!”

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