The first coroner’s inquest under King County’s newly revamped process to review police-caused deaths opened Tuesday morning with the seating of an eight-person jury and testimony from the first witnesses.
The inquest, which will be conducted much like a trial, will examine the fatal shooting of Damarius Butts, a 19-year-old Black man, by Seattle police on April 20, 2017. Butts died in an exchange of gunfire that left three officers injured after a robbery at a downtown convenience store. Four officers fired their weapons that day.
An internal review by police found the shooting to be reasonable and proportional.
The jury, which includes two alternates, consists of six white men, an Asian American man and a Black woman. At the end of the proceedings they will be asked to answer nearly 100 questions on whether the officers followed policy and procedures or if criminal means were involved in Butts’ death.
The proceedings began with Inquest Administrator Michael Spearman questioning several of the jurors about whether they had read or heard any media coverage of the shooting or inquest process that might influence them. The inquest is being held at the Judge Patricia H. Clark Children and Family Justice Center in Seattle.
The first witnesses called to the stand recounted seeing a man later identified as Butts walking in downtown, shortly after police responded to the convenience store robbery.
Among those seated in the courtroom were Butts’ mother and grandmother, Stephanie Butts and Frances Butts. Also present were the four involved officers involved in Butts’ death: Elizabeth Kennedy, Joshua Vaaga, Christopher Meyers and Canek Gordillo.
The inquest ends a nearly five-year hiatus in shooting inquests in King County. The county’s charter – unique among Washington counties – requires a coroner’s jury to convene and look into the facts and circumstances surrounding any death involving law enforcement.
Most other Washington counties rely on death investigations conducted by a coroner or a medical examiner.
The newly expanded inquest process stems from revisions made in 2019 by King County Executive Dow Constantine, which were subsequently struck down in August 2020 by a King County Superior Court Judge, who ruled that the executive had overstepped his authority. Attorneys for the Butts family challenged that opinion, and in July 2021 a unanimous Washington Supreme Court not only reversed that ruling but expanded the inquest process even further.
The changes were intended to rectify problems in a fact-finding system that has tilted heavily in favor of law enforcement over the years, according to Constantine and others. Before the inquest process was halted by Constantine in 2017, jurors were routinely asked to determine only if the officer had reason to fear for their life when they resorted to using deadly force.
Inquest jurors will now be allowed to review department policies and officers’ actions and determine whether any of the deaths involved “criminal means.” The new process also allows for the appointment of attorneys to represent the families in the hearings.
Also for the first time, involved officers will be required to testify under oath before the jury. If they don’t want to answer a question, they will have to invoke their Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination before the inquest jury.
Under the old inquest process, officers could refuse to show up for the hearing.
According to investigative reports, Butts and his then-17-year-old sister stole doughnuts, potato chips, a 12-pack of beer and other beverages from a 7-Eleven store at 627 First Ave. When the clerk ran after them and grabbed his sister, Butts revealed a gun in his waistband and demanded that the clerk let go, according to criminal charges filed against his sister.
Bicycle officers quickly caught up to the siblings, who had given the stolen food to a third person, a 19-year-old Renton man who was waiting outside the store, charging papers say.
As officers tried to take Butts into custody, his sister threw a soft-drink bottle that struck one officer’s head, then “struck the officer and attempted to place him in a choke hold … enabling her brother to break free,” according to the charges.
The first witness who testified Tuesday was Melissa Miller, an employee of an architecture firm on Western Avenue near Madison Street. She said she was walking to her car when she heard an odd noise and looked up to see a young Black man walking down Madison from First Avenue.
She said the man, identified as Butts, was fumbling with something under his baggy T-shirt as he passed her, and then began running around the corner.
Miller said she looked up Madison and saw two police officers with a young Black woman who was lying on the ground. One of the officers, a female, began moving down Madison after the young man.
Under questioning by Adrien Leavitt, an attorney representing the Butts family, Miller said she did not feel threatened by the young man nor did she ever see a gun.
About 1:23 p.m., Butts ran past Officer Kennedy’s patrol car and toward the loading-dock area of the Federal Building at 909 First Ave., according to a Seattle police Force Investigation Report.
Kennedy jumped from her patrol car and led a group of officers chasing Butts.
“Show me your hands!” she yelled to Butts, her commands captured on her in-car video and audio system.
Kennedy chased Butts onto the loading dock and into the building, with two other officers running behind her, according to the force report. She quickly found herself in a small room with Butts.
In a statement she later provided to investigators, Kennedy said she was thinking at the time, “He’s not gonna shoot me over a 6-pack of beer.”
Kennedy said she then heard a “very soft pop” and felt something hit her ballistic vest.
She said she returned fire until Butts fell, according to the report.
Several other officers arrived, including Hudson Kang.
In his interview with investigators, Kang said he saw Butts lying on the ground, partially blocked by wooden pallets. Officers told Butts to “drop the gun,” Kang said.
“During that time, I remember hearing a bang, a gunshot and I remember immediately feeling pressure going through my body, I thought I was hit directly, uh, center mass, in the vest, ‘cause I remember I felt, like, a bunch of energy inside my chest area,” Kang said.
The shot had actually struck him on the left side of his chin, knocking him down, the report says.
Officer Vaaga told investigators he saw what he believed to be a muzzle flash from behind the pallets and saw Kang drop to the ground with blood on his chin. Vaaga said he pointed his gun at Butts and fired.
Two other officers, Meyers and Gordillo, also opened fire, according to the force report.
In all, 18 shots were fired by Kennedy, Vaaga, Meyers and Gordillo – 10 of them by Kennedy, the report says.
Two officers then pulled Kang out of the area.
Butts was declared dead at the scene by paramedics. A silver-colored handgun was seen on the ground where Butts had lain, according to the report.
The Seattle Police Department’s Force Review Board later found the shooting to be reasonable and proportional. The board also found the officers’ tactics and decision-making fell within policy and training, according to the board’s written report.
There are six other inquests scheduled so far.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.