Inquest jurors split over Seattle police shooting
Seattle police Officer Ian Birk wasn't facing an imminent threat when he fatally shot woodcarver John T. Williams, nor did he give Williams sufficient time to put down the knife he was carrying, a King County inquest jury found in a split vote Thursday.
Seattle Times staff reporters
King County prosecutors will review the inquest findings to determine whether Seattle police Officer Ian Birk should face criminal charges in the fatal shooting of John T. Williams,
The Seattle Police Department's Firearms Review Board will reconvene and a consider whether to keep intact its preliminary finding that the shooting was not justified.
The department's Office of Professional Accountability ultimately could recommend disciplinary action up to firing to Chief John Diaz, who has final say.
Police, mayor's statementsHere are the statements from the Seattle Police Department and Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn on the inquest:
Police: "The King County Inquest is a process that is independent of the police department and held to assist the prosecuting attorney. We respect and support that process and Chief Diaz would personally like to thank the jury for their participation. We are confident that the prosecuting attorney's office will make a full, fair and objective assessment based on the information that has been presented to them."
McGinn: "The shooting of John T. Williams by Officer Ian Birk was a tragedy that affected our entire city. We need a thorough, transparent review of the incident, and the factors that contributed to it. The King County inquest is one step in that review. We are closely reviewing the inquest's findings to determine our next steps. I thank the eight citizens who served on this inquest for their service."
Two key questionsIn the deadly shooting of woodcarver John T. Williams by Officer Ian Birk, the inquest jury faced 19 fact-finding questions. These were among the most contentious issues:
Did John T. Williams have sufficient time to put the knife down after Officer Birk's order?
Yes: 1 No: 4 Unknown: 3
Based on the information available at the time Officer Birk fired his weapon, did John T. Williams then pose an imminent threat of serious physical harm to Officer Birk?
Yes: 1 No: 4 Unknown: 3
Seattle police Officer Ian Birk wasn't facing an imminent threat when he fatally shot woodcarver John T. Williams, nor did he give Williams sufficient time to put down the knife he was carrying, four of eight inquest jurors found in a split ruling Thursday.
Only one other juror found that Birk faced a threat and gave Williams sufficient time, while three others answered "unknown."
Four jurors determined Birk believed he in was danger when he encountered Williams on a Seattle street Aug. 30, while four others answered "unknown."
The findings regarding the actual threat to Birk stand in contrast to previous King County inquest decisions, in which jurors have almost always upheld the actions of police officers involved in deadly shootings.
The results will be reviewed by the King County Prosecutor's Office to help determine whether criminal charges are warranted, and will be considered by the Seattle Police Department as it examines Birk's actions. The prosecutor's review is expected to be completed in mid-February.
A stone-faced Birk left the courtroom with his wife, Camille, declining to comment, after the jury's findings were read to a packed courtroom by King County District Court Judge Arthur Chapman.
Birk, 27, who joined the department in July 2008, already has been stripped of his gun and badge as a result of a preliminary finding by the department that the shooting was unjustified.
His attorney, Ted Buck, said Birk, who has been on paid leave since the shooting, wants to continue to work as a Seattle police officer.
The jury deliberated about 10 hours over two days, sifting through conflicting testimony and two patrol-car videos and audio that captured some elements of the confrontation at Boren Avenue and Howell Street but not the shooting. The jury's answers did not have to be unanimous in the fact-finding inquest.
"I don't think there has ever been a verdict like this in a King County or Seattle inquest," said Tim Ford, an attorney for the Williams family.
Ford pointed to the jury's vote of four "no," one "yes" and three "unknown" to the question of whether Birk, based on information available at the time he fired, faced an imminent threat of serious physical harm from Williams.
"I think this is as strong a statement as you could expect," Ford said. "I think they've spoken really clearly."
Buck said the most telling answer was the jury's unanimous vote that Birk had ordered Williams three times to put down his knife.
Buck also said it was important jurors concluded that Birk believed Williams posed an imminent threat. Four jurors answered "yes" and the rest answered "unknown."
"Generally a positive result, that's what matters," Buck said.
The jurors left the King County Courthouse without commenting.
In one key question, four of the eight found Williams didn't have sufficient time to put down his knife. Only one juror found that Williams had enough time. Three others answered "unknown."
According to evidence presented during the inquest, about four seconds elapsed between the time Birk issued his first order to Williams to put down the knife and when the officer opened fire.
Ford said he believes King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg has to strongly consider filing a criminal charge against Birk.
"He's got to be worried that the second independent review of his actions hasn't accepted what he's claiming," said Ford, referring to the Police Department's preliminary finding.
Prosecutors would face a steep legal hurdle if they charged Birk. State law shields police officers from criminal prosecution when they claim they used deadly force in self-defense, unless it can be shown they acted with malice and a lack of good faith.
Jurors weren't asked to weigh whether Birk was guilty or innocent of wrongdoing in the shooting.
Andrea Brenneke, an attorney for the Williams family, called the jury's findings significant.
"This is the first time an inquest jury came back with a result consistent with the notion the officer [wasn't] faced with a threat when he shot someone," she said.
However, Williams' brother, Eric Williams, 65, said the findings didn't give him solace. He said that won't come until prosecutors file murder charges against Birk.
"I am missing my brother. It's never going to be over for me," said Williams, who had tears streaming down his cheeks after the jury's findings were read.
The shooting occurred after Birk saw Williams cross the street holding a flat piece of wood and a knife with a 3-inch blade. Williams, a member of Canada's First Nations people, used the knife for carving, according to his family.
Birk got out of his patrol car and followed Williams onto the sidewalk. Birk shouted at Williams to get his attention and ordered him three times to put down the knife. Birk fired when Williams didn't respond, hitting him four times.
Birk testified last week he was initially concerned because Williams showed signs of impairment while carrying a knife. He said when he sought to question Williams, Williams turned toward him with a "very stern, very serious, very confrontational look on his face."
Birk told jurors Williams "still had the knife out and [was in] a very confrontational posture" when he opened fire.
Williams, a chronic inebriate, had a blood-alcohol level measured during his autopsy at 0.18 percent, above the 0.08 percent level at which a driver is considered to be legally drunk.
During the inquest, two witnesses contradicted Birk, saying they didn't see Williams do anything threatening before he was shot.
Under questioning by Ford, Birk testified that shortly after the shooting he told a witness, a responding officer and a detective that Williams had not complied with his order to put down the knife. He acknowledged that, at that time, he did not tell them that Williams had threatened him.
It wasn't until hours later, Birk testified, that he provided a detailed written statement alleging that Williams had menacingly displayed the knife and "pre-attack indicators."
Williams was shot predominantly on the right side of his body, and his knife was found folded in the closed position after the shooting.
Five jurors did not believe the front of Williams' upper body was partially turned toward Birk when he fired, while two found it was and one answered unknown.
In a follow-up question posed to only those who answered "no," all five said they believed Williams was turning toward Birk when the officer fired.
Jurors unanimously found that Williams was carrying an open knife when first seen by Birk. But four answered "no" and four "unknown" when asked if the blade was open when Birk fired.
In the Police Department's preliminary ruling on the shooting, Chief John Diaz and the department's Firearms Review Board found in October that the shooting was not justified, according to sources familiar with the confidential proceeding. The board will reconvene and make a final ruling now that the inquest has concluded.
Federal prosecutors also could consider bringing a criminal civil-rights case against Birk, but they must show willful criminal conduct to obtain a conviction. An assistant U.S. attorney in Seattle watched some of the inquest proceedings, including Birk's testimony.
The fact-finding inquest came amid growing criticism that Seattle police officers used excessive force in several recent incidents, particularly in dealings with minorities.
The shooting of Williams and other incidents have prompted the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and 34 community groups to call on the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the department's practices.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or email@example.com
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.
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