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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County to pay $1 million to family of mentally ill man shot and killed by deputy

Justine Murray and her brother carried cut flowers, Thursday, May 9, 2019, to the site where her son Ethan Murray was shot and killed by a Spokane County deputy on Saturday, May 4, in Spokane Valley.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

The family of a mentally ill man who was shot and killed by a Spokane County Sheriff’s Deputy in 2019 will receive $1 million after the Spokane County Commissioners approved a federal civil rights lawsuit settlement Tuesday.

Ethan Murray, 25, was killed in May 2019 in a wooded area outside the Parkside Apartments at Mirabeau in Spokane Valley. Deputy Joseph Wallace told investigators he believed Murray had a knife, but an investigation revealed Murray was unarmed.

“A million-dollar settlement speaks louder than any denial of wrongdoing,” wrote Braden Pence, an attorney for Murray’s mother, in an email Tuesday.

Murray’s parents, Justine Murray and Mark Jentsch, filed the suit in July on behalf of their son’s estate in U.S. District Court in Spokane, alleging Wallace violated their son’s constitutional rights and the sheriff’s office provides inadequate training for dealing with mental health issues.

Since her son’s death, Justine Murray has become an outspoken advocate for mental health, homeless and addiction services, along with better police training on mental health issues. She founded the Ethan Murray Fund, in part to further her goal of 24-hour mental health crisis response in North Idaho, where she resides.

“There’s no real justice for Ethan, I feel, until we have a better system in place,” Justine Murray said Tuesday.

Despite the settlement, the claims made in the lawsuit remain disputed, and the county did not admit liability.

“In association with Washington Counties Risk Pool, the Spokane County Commissioners assessed the risk of the lawsuit and determined the best path forward was to mitigate the risk for the County and its citizens in the best way possible,” the county said in a statement Tuesday. “It was the recommendation of the Risk Pool to settle at this amount and resolve the lawsuit.”

The Washington Counties Risk Pool is an organization that allows member counties to jointly purchase insurance.

The Spokane County Commissioners approved the settlement without discussion as part of their consent agenda Tuesday.

Along with the statement, the county sent the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office’s 2019 statement finding Wallace’s use of force justified. Wallace continues to work for the sheriff’s office and has since been promoted to detective.

The Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office has not charged an officer in connection to lethal use of force in the last two decades. Prosecutor Larry Haskell did not immediately return request for comment on the settlement.

A spokesman for the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, Mark Gregory, said the sheriff was unavailable for comment on the settlement Tuesday due to scheduling conflicts but would comment later.

The settlement is one of the largest law enforcement use of force settlements in the Spokane area since the city of Spokane paid the family of Otto Zhem for $1.67 million in 2012. Zehm was beaten in 2006 by officers who wrongfully believed he had committed theft, and he eventually died from his injuries. One of them was later convicted.

The suit alleged deputies were aggressive and insensitive to Ethan Murray’s mental illness, in line with the “warrior mindset” training used at the sheriff’s office. The sheriff’s office faced criticism last year when it was scheduled to host a training program that aimed at readying officers for the moment they kill someone and how they’ll react to it.

Murray was showing signs of mental illness when deputies arrived to the area where he had been camping, the lawsuit said.

When confronted by deputies, Murray fled toward the woods where he had been living. Wallace followed Murray, who he said did not comply with commands.

The deputy said Murray threatened him with a knife he pulled from his pocket, according to the prosecutor’s office statement. Wallace then shot Murray five times, killing him.

The prosecutor’s office said Murray had pulled a pair of black sunglasses from his pocket, which Wallace mistook for a knife.

Wallace did not file a statement on the incident until nearly a month later, and only after reviewing dispatch records and audio recordings of the incident, the suit alleged.

“The 30-day delay in the shooter’s statement is emblematic of the double-standard afforded to officers. Anyone who kills in the name of self-defense faces immediate arrest and questioning, except for law enforcement officers, who typically get a month of paid leave followed by a promotion, as the shooter received in this case,” Pence said.

In his statement, Wallace mentioned the knife he said he saw Murray pull out of his pocket. During the investigation, a knife was found on the scene but it was later determined to be a knife dropped by a deputy, the suit claimed.

Pence said it’s “difficult to accept” that the knife was dropped accidentally and “entirely unbelievable” the county would swiftly remove the knife from evidence without further investigation.

“This sequence, the appearance of the knife followed by its disappearance from the chain of custody, stinks of a coverup,” Pence said.

While Justine Murray said she and her legal team initially hoped to go to trial, the large settlement at least communicated “some respect for Ethan’s humanity and for the toll his death took on his family,” Pence said.

Investigation done in preparation for a trial and mediation helped his mother learn more about the case, she said.

The suit requested not only damages, but a requirement that the sheriff’s office expand its mental health response field capabilities and that officers be required to submit written statements within 24 hours of a deadly force incident.

Those requests weren’t part of the settlement; however, the sheriff’s office recently began wearing body cameras, something Pence said is a positive sign.

“I feel like if we had that in place with Ethan, it would have been a different story,” Justine Murray said of body cameras.

With a settlement reached, she plans to focus on creating real change through the Ethan Murray Fund.

With the nonprofit in its infancy, Justine Murray is talking with service providers in the region to see which gaps the fund can fill. One goal she has is an alternative to police responding to mental health calls, similar to a Eugene, Oregon, mobile crisis intervention program that responds to behavioral health calls. She also hopes to work on a documentary to share her son’s story.

“No amount of money can bring Ethan back,” Justine Murray said. “We’re going to do really great things in Ethan’s name, and that’s what I want to focus on now, is helping others.”