A six-member coroner’s jury is considering whether the four Seattle police officers who shot and killed 19-year-old Damarius Butts in 2017 complied with the law and department policy, following two weeks of testimony.
The jury was instructed by Inquest Administrator Michael Spearman and sent into deliberations with a list of 84 questions to answer “yes, no or unknown” regarding whether each of the involved officers was justified in their use of deadly force, whether they had other options and whether Butts was treated in a timely manner for his injuries.
The jury was sent home Friday after three hours of deliberations without reaching a verdict. They will resume Monday.
There were no opening or closing statements or arguments.
The inquest was the first held in five years and marks the resumption of a process intended to provide answers to the public and families of individuals who die at the hands of law enforcement. The process was halted in 2017 and revised to address criticism that it favored law enforcement. The Butts inquest was held in a conference room in the Judge Patricia H. Clark Children and Family Justice Center in downtown Seattle, and is the first under the new system, which expanded the jury’s ability to consider whether police may have broken the law or violated policy, and ensured legal representation for the families.
Over the past two weeks jurors have heard from civilian and police department witnesses, as well as the four officers who fired their weapons after Butts, a suspect in an armed robbery, fled into a small vestibule inside the loading dock of the downtown Federal Office Building, located between Marion and Madison streets on Western Avenue the afternoon of April 20, 2017. The parties agreed that Butts was armed with a .38-caliber handgun.
There were two exchanges of gunfire, according to witnesses, surveillance and dash-camera video introduced into evidence. During the first, Seattle police Officer Elizabeth Kennedy was struck by a bullet in the chest. The round was stopped by her protective vest. Kennedy returned fire, as did Officer Chris Myer. Kennedy said she saw Butts buckle and fall.
Less than a minute later, there was a second exchange of gunfire in which police Officer Hudson Kang was struck in the face. That round traveled through his neck, struck his spine and ricocheted into his chest cavity, where it remained for several months. The bullet eventually migrated to a spot where it was surgically removed, and Kang had it made into a necklace. Kang fully recovered from his injuries and returned to the streets as an officer.
Two other officers, Canek Gordillo and Joshua Vaaga, also fired rounds at Butts. Dr. Brian Mazrim, an associated King County Medical Examiner, testified that Butts suffered 11 gunshot wounds, causing devastating internal damage that would have resulted in death “within minutes.” Evidence showed Butts’ Smith & Wesson revolver was fired four times.
Butts and two others – including his sister – reportedly stole beer and snacks from a convenience store. When the manager confronted them, Butts reportedly lifted his T-shirt to show the manager a gun in his waistband.
Several officers were in the area when the manager reported the robbery, and converged on the area surrounding First Avenue and Madison Street. Butts was initially stopped by officers, who wrestled with him. His sister struck one of the officers with a bottle and Butts slipped away and ran west toward Western Avenue, where Officers Kennedy and Gordillo chased him into the loading dock.
Butts fled through a large door, protected by hanging plastic strips, and into an office in the corner of a receiving area where he turned and fired at Kennedy, according to the officers’ testimony.
She and Gordillo returned fire. Gordillo pulled Kennedy out of harm’s way after she was struck in the vest by a round. Several other officers had arrived by then, including Kang and Myer, according to testimony. Kang had flattened himself against a wall next to the office door when he was shot in the face.
Myer, a 32-year veteran officer who has been involved in three other shootings, returned fire, as did Vaaga, as other officers pulled Kang to safety.
Vaaga, who was the last witness to testify, saw Kang get shot, saying he watched him slide down a wall and drop his handgun. He said he thought Kang was dead, and broadcast “Officer down!” three times. His testimony echoed what the other three involved officers stated during their testimony: He resorted to lethal force because “I believe I had no other choice in order to protect my life and the life of others.”
None of the four involved officers – the ones who fired their weapons – testified voluntarily. At one point, according to pleadings, they considered pleading the Fifth Amendment, which protects against self-incrimination, due to their possible exposure to criminal liability if the jury was to conclude Butts’ death resulted from “criminal means,” the language approved by the Washington Supreme Court when it unanimously upheld the legality of the new King County inquest system.
However, because the incident occurred in 2017, the jurors will weigh the evidence against a statute that was in place at that time that makes it virtually impossible to charge an officer with murder.
That law was changed with the passage of I-940 in 2018.
Spearman ruled that inquests are not criminal proceedings and that the officers could be subpoenaed to testify. If they refused, he said, he would provide the jury with statements the officers made to the Seattle Police Department’s Force Investigation Team, which had been compelled under U.S. Supreme Court ruling Garrity v. New Jersey. That ruling requires public employees such as police officers to cooperate with internal investigations, with the understanding that anything they say could not be used in a criminal case.
King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg has said that, unless the evidence is overwhelming, his office generally will wait until an inquest has been conducted before making a final decision on whether an officer would be charged with a crime. In the past 30 years, the King County prosecutor’s office has charged a single officer with homicide – Officer Jeff Nelson of Auburn, charged in 2020 with the shooting death of Jesse Sarey.
The prosecuting attorney’s office says there are 56 officer-involved deaths that have occurred since 2017 that are awaiting inquest.
Before King County Administrator Dow Constantine halted inquests in 2017 and commissioned a task force to revise them, officers could refuse to testify and often would not attend the proceedings.
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