For Michael and Dianne Murphy of Maple Valley, the inquest examining their son’s death left them completely disillusioned. “It was a joke,” Michael said.
Eight years later, the death of Charleena Lyles at the hands of Seattle police will likely result in an inquest — and new attempts to understand and scrutinize the inquest process. Police shot Lyles in her apartment last month. They said she threatened them with a knife.
In Washington state, only King County holds inquests to investigate shootings by officers. Supporters say inquests provide transparency around the facts of the case. Critics say the most urgent questions are never asked or answered.
On New Year’s Day 2009, the Murphys received a phone call from Harborview Medical Center. Their son Miles, a 22-year-old student at the University of Washington, was dead.
Miles was a history buff who owned historic uniforms and guns. He and some friends celebrated New Year’s Eve by firing a rifle topped with a bayonet — it was loaded with blanks. A neighbor called the police. One of the responding officers shot Miles, saying he refused commands to drop the gun. But the Murphys said it was agonizingly difficult to piece those events together.
“Miles had been admitted to the hospital about 3 a.m.,” Dianne said. “He’d been in surgery for five hours. The time they called me was shortly after he’d passed away. So there was all that time that someone could have called us and we could have been at the hospital while he was still alive.
"They didn’t come straight out and tell us he’d been shot by the police. I think they told us to call the police and they gave us a card. And I called, standing there next to our son’s body … and I think they told us we could come down to the station. Michael said, ‘No, we’re here with our son. You come to us.’ So they did. Two detectives came to the hospital.”
“Even when we’re talking to the detectives, initially, they’re already circling the wagons,” Michael said. “They’re not going to give us any information. They’re treating us like we’re against them, like enemies, while we had full faith and trust in them.”
The Murphys said they expected the inquest to shed light on Miles’ death.
“I didn’t want to come out against the police before the inquest,” Dianne said. “We were being fair. You know, we just wanted to wait and see. Let the process happen. And now looking back, sometimes I really regret that.”
Michael said he was waiting to see the officers involved take the stand and answer questions.
"That’s really what I was looking forward to," he said. "The police and the city attorney asked them all these questions and they had all the answers, they were very calm, just like this. Then our attorneys got a chance to ask questions. All of a sudden, ‘Oh, I can’t recall. I can’t recall. I can’t recall.’”
“It was a joke to me,” Michael said. “This is going from having full faith in the process and the justice system. It was a joke.”
Dianne said they hesitated to criticize the inquest process publicly or speak about Miles’ death and the investigation. They said, in part that was because they realized nothing they did could bring him back. And there was their college-age daughter to consider. After they received the news of his death, they drove to Bellingham to pick her up. On the drive, Dianne said, she and Michael made a pact to focus their energies on being good parents to her.
Seattle Police Chief Operating Officer Brian Maxey said he wasn't familiar with the Murphys' case. But he said in an email that the department's investigations in such incidents have changed dramatically in the past five years.
He said that after an investigation by the department's Force Investigations team, the Force Review Board "critically reviews not only whether the use of force was within policy, but also examines tactics, training and equipment."
He said the review is conducted under observation by the Office of Professional Accountability, the Department of Justice and others.
"The purpose is not just to judge the incident, but to always learn from it whether or not it was within policy," Maxey wrote.
Attorneys for police officers and for families of the deceased agree on one thing: Inquests are stressful for everyone involved.
Derrick Isackson is a lawyer in Seattle who represents police officers and their unions.
“Any time that an officer has had to use force that resulted in someone’s death, it’s very difficult for that officer,” he said. “They’re essentially having to re-live that in open court in front of the public, in front of a jury, and they have to provide them with that information."
This replay of events is why King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg believes in inquests. Satterberg addressed the process before a gathering in January of the group Not This Time, created in the wake of the shooting of Che Taylor by Seattle police in 2016.
“The investigation is revealed in open court where anybody can watch it,” he said. “I will defend that process as superior to one that happens entirely on paper.”
At the inquest, a jury answers dozens of questions about the circumstances of the person’s death, including whether officers feared for their safety (read an example of court interrogatories). The findings go to the prosecutor to determine potential criminal charges and may be used in civil lawsuits.
But families of the deceased have come away surprised that their most urgent questions aren’t allowed.
At the inquest for Muckleshoot tribal member Renee Davis last May, her family wanted to ask how King County deputies are trained to check on people who are suicidal, as Davis was reported to be. But attorney Bree Black Horse said questions of training and policy were not on the table.
“The court told the family, this isn’t going to be a satisfactory process,” Black Horse said, and explained “the questions the family really wants answered are more appropriate to a civil suit.”
They’re now preparing to file a lawsuit against King County. But some families can’t afford to bring a civil suit. Others say they want to help change policing and prevent future deaths.
Pierce Murphy directs Seattle’s Office of Professional Accountability, which investigates misconduct complaints against Seattle police. He said the Seattle department does look at training and prevention when a shooting occurs, but it’s behind closed doors.
“That’s the force review process that has been created as a result of the settlement agreement between the Department of Justice and the City of Seattle,” Murphy said. “Unfortunately that process is not a public process."
Attorney Corey Guilmette represented the family of Che Taylor at the inquest. Taylor was killed in an encounter with Seattle police last year. Guilmette wants inquest rules changed to allow broader questions.
“A lot of people think an inquest is to determine whether a shooting was justified or whether a killing was justified," he said. "It really does not do that and cannot do that."
Guilmette said there is no way to appeal a judge’s decisions about the scope of the inquest, and no way to challenge an officer’s statement if lawyers believe it’s incorrect.
“We can’t do anything about it," he said. "There is no opening statement; there are no closing statements; we can’t call another witness to rebut what they said. So it just stands.”
But Derrick Isackson, the attorney who has represented police officers, said that if the inquest process is changed dramatically, it may not serve a purpose anymore. He said inquests originated at a time when it was hard to get the facts of a case. Now, he said, victims’ families could file public records requests and proceed with their own lawsuits.
“The reality is, aren’t you just then moving into a civil liability issue at that point?” he said. “You’re trying to lay blame as opposed to, 'listen, let’s just look at what the facts are.’ And that’s the idea of the inquest process from my perspective.”
Bree Black Horse said ultimately Renee Davis’ family found the inquest process useful. But that’s largely because the family and the Muckleshoot tribe were able to hire lawyers to represent them.
“Not everybody is resourced that way,” she said. There’s no provision to appoint public defenders if a family can’t afford a lawyer.