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Inquests into officer-involved shootings look very different now in King County

caption: Stephanie Butts, at the microphone, remembers her son Damarius Butts, as his siblings hold up his photo. The inquest into the facts of his death was King County's first in almost five years.
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Stephanie Butts, at the microphone, remembers her son Damarius Butts, as his siblings hold up his photo. The inquest into the facts of his death was King County's first in almost five years.
KUOW/Amy Radil

Tuesday marked the first fact-finding inquiry into a police shooting in King County in four years, following reforms in the process initiated by King County Executive Dow Constantine.

This week, jurors are hearing testimony in the fatal shooting of 19 year-old Damarius Butts by Seattle police in 2017.

The inquest on Tuesday, March 15 differed from years past in appearance and content. For example, you could tune into the proceedings from home by logging into a Zoom webinar, or read more than 130 case documents available in a public Dropbox folder.

Families now may be represented by county-appointed public defenders.

Jurors will be able to examine issues of police department policy and training, and won’t be asked to determine whether officers feared for their lives. The jurors will also weigh whether Butts was killed by “criminal means,” a term from the state law related to inquests.

Plus, the involved officers are expected to testify. Under the reforms, they must testify or plead the Fifth.

These proceedings are not a trial, but a public investigation in which a jury hears testimony, reviews evidence, and completes a verdict laying out the who, what, when, where, and how of a law enforcement-involved shooting.

This inquest concerns an April 2017 police shooting in downtown Seattle, a few blocks from Pioneer Square.

All parties agree that at the time Butts had a .38-caliber revolver and had just taken part in a robbery of a 7-Eleven. Butts was fatally shot following a police chase.

Jurors must answer nearly 100 questions, called “interrogatories,” such as whether there was an exchange of gunfire, and if so, who fired the first shot.

On the first day of the inquest, attorneys questioned eyewitnesses for hours, asking them to confirm information in photos and videos. No officers involved have testified yet.

Justin Keaton, a private security guard working at the loading dock of the Federal Office Building, told jurors he had just finished eating an apple.

“I walked up the stairs, I threw it in the trash can, and that’s when I heard the police in pursuit of somebody, telling them to get down.”

Keaton gestured to a diagram.

“The officer standing here yelled several times, ‘Get down, stop, get down, get down,'” Keaton said. “It had to be seconds after I entered the room that they were exchanging fire, but I can’t determine who shot first.”

Other witnesses included an architectural lighting designer who was on her way to her car, a downtown office worker taking a lunch-break walk, and National Park Service employees loading furniture into a truck.

Five years ago, an internal police review found the use of force was “necessary, reasonable, and proportional” and that officers followed training and policy. It was determined that the officers fired at Butts after he opened fire first and hit an officer wearing bulletproof vest.

Damarius Butts’ sister, Adrianna Butts, also took part in the robbery and was found guilty in King County Superior Court. Witnesses and attorneys are prohibited from referring to her by name or by relationship, under an agreement by the parties.

The inquest is scheduled to last until next Friday, March 25.

In the next few months, the county executive’s office expects the commencement of inquests on the death of Robert Lightfeather, involving the Federal Way Police Department and Albert Fredericks Jr., involving the Seattle Police Department.

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