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‘They said, he’s dead’: Judge in Seattle won’t dismiss civil rights lawsuit by family of Che Taylor

UPDATED: Sat., Sept. 5, 2020

Family members of Che Taylor listen to an attorney speak about the decision by Prosecutor Dan Satterberg that criminal charges against two Seattle police officers who fatally shot Taylor will not be filed on March 14, 2017, in Seattle.  (Elaine Thompson)
Family members of Che Taylor listen to an attorney speak about the decision by Prosecutor Dan Satterberg that criminal charges against two Seattle police officers who fatally shot Taylor will not be filed on March 14, 2017, in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson)
By Mike Carter Seattle Times

Calling the 2016 death of Che Andrè Taylor a “they said, he’s dead” conundrum, a federal judge in Seattle has ordered that a jury should decide whether to believe two Seattle police officers who said they shot Taylor as he reached for a gun.

Evidence developed in the case has raised questions about whether Taylor actually was armed when he was confronted by two armed plainclothes police officers outside a Wedgwood home and fatally shot, raising a question in the court’s mind about why he would reach for a gun – or if he did.

“The reasonable inferences from the evidence provide some support for the proposition that Taylor was not armed at the time he was shot and that Taylor was not engaged in the nonsensical act of drawing for a nonexistent gun while multiple officers aimed their weapons at him,” U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly wrote Tuesday.

In a crucial ruling in the emotionally charged and highly publicized case, Zilly denied the city’s motions to dismiss a civil rights lawsuit filed by Taylor’s family in 2018, sending the case before a jury to determine what happened. From there, the judge will decide whether Michael Spaulding and Scott Miller – the two Seattle officers who shot Taylor – are entitled to “qualified immunity” from liability for Taylor’s death.

“In more than one way, it is a ‘They Said, He’s Dead,’ ” case, the judge wrote. They – the two officers – “say Taylor was reaching for a gun … But Taylor’s version of events will never be known.”

Zilly’s ruling was met with restrained optimism by Andrè Taylor, Che Taylor’s brother, whose outrage over the death propelled him to establish Not This Time, a group that advocates against police violence.

“This has been an exhausting four years for our family,” he said. “We are grateful for this ruling. The climate has changed a bit since George Floyd. I am thinking a certain amount of fairness is finally due.”

Floyd was the Black man who died in May after being pinned for several minutes under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer, leading to criminal charges against the officers involved in his arrest and to international protests over police brutality and racial injustice.

In the Seattle case, the Seattle officers are white and Taylor was black.

No criminal charges were filed against the officers.

Deputy City Attorney John Schochet said the city was reviewing Zilly’s decision and wasn’t in a position to comment. “We need some time before we decide how to proceed,” he said.

The two officers were conducting an undercover operation in search of another man when Taylor arrived in a car on Feb. 21, 2016, according to police and testimony at an inquest hearing into Taylor’s death.

Spaulding and Miller said they recognized the 47-year-old Taylor as a known felon and career criminal with convictions for rape and robbery. As a felon, he was barred from having a gun, but Miller told Spaulding he had seen a handgun in a holster on Taylor’s hip when Taylor exited the car.

The ruling states that the officers said they lost track of Taylor for as long as a half-hour before seeing him return to the area, riding in the front seat of another car. As Taylor exited that vehicle, the two officers – Miller armed with a shotgun and Spaulding with a rifle – approached and ordered Taylor to show his hands and get on the ground, according to the court file.

According to Zilly’s ruling, five seconds elapsed from when the officers first approached Taylor to when the fatal shots were fired.

Both officers said they believed they saw Taylor reaching for a gun on his hip, where they had seen the holster.

The only weapon found was under the passenger seat of the car Taylor had exited, beneath debris and situated with the barrel pointing forward, making it difficult to grab, the judge concluded.

And the only holster logged as evidence was found in the street, although Zilly notes that SPD Detective Lisa Haakenstad’s report “seems to suggest that the holster was found attached to Taylor’s belt at the right hip.”

“The key issue is whether the officers involved had probable cause to believe Taylor had a gun at the time” they shot him, Zilly said. Taylor’s lawyers have contended the officers were acting on “stale” information and that their probable cause was dated. Zilly found that argument compelling.

“Given the amount of time and reasons that Taylor could not be observed, and his return to the scene in a passenger vehicle occupied by two other people … the court concludes that ‘room for a difference of opinion’ exists” over whether the officers had probable cause to stop him, Zilly wrote.

“The court is satisfied that, at the time Miller and Spaulding took steps to arrest Taylor, the ‘clearly established’ law required them … to confirm their original basis for probable cause,” the judge said.

The other constitutional issue – whether shooting Taylor in those circumstances amounted to excessive force – also should be considered by the jury, the judge ruled. It is possible that Taylor was trying to get on the ground, but was confused by conflicting orders.

Zilly noted that the law is clear that “law enforcement personnel ‘may not kill suspects who do not pose an immediate threat to their safety’, even if the suspects are armed.”

In the ruling, Zilly repeatedly cited a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals case out of California in which several officers shot and killed a man with no other witnesses, all claiming he was reaching for a nonexistent gun – a “they said, he’s dead” case that was sent to a jury after the appellate court determined enough inconsistencies existed for a jury to conclude the officers might be lying.

The Taylor case, Zilly ruled, “has some parallels” in that a jury could conclude Taylor wasn’t armed or reaching for a gun that wasn’t there.

At this state of the proceedings in a federal civil rights case, the court looks at the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs. The case had been scheduled for trial in June. No new trial date has been set.

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