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Originally published March 8, 2011 at 12:01 PM | Page modified March 9, 2011 at 12:37 PM

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Attorneys seek grand-jury review of fatal shooting of woodcarver

Attorneys for the family of John T. Williams are asking that a citizen grand jury be convened to consider bringing criminal charges against former Seattle police Officer Ian Birk in the fatal shooting of Williams last summer.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Attorneys for the family of John T. Williams are asking that a citizen grand jury be convened to consider bringing criminal charges against former Seattle police Officer Ian Birk in the fatal shooting of Williams last summer.

The request by Seattle attorneys Tim Ford and Andrea Brenneke comes nearly three weeks after King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg announced there were insufficient grounds to pursue murder or manslaughter charges against Birk.

Birk resigned from the Police Department on Feb. 16, the same day as Satterberg's announcement, shortly after police officials released a scathing report that found Birk acted outside the department's "policy, tactics and training" when he shot Williams four times on Aug. 30 near downtown Seattle.

The request for a grand jury was made in letters sent Monday to Satterberg and Seattle City Attorney Peter Holmes.

Satterberg's spokesman, Dan Donohoe, said the request was being reviewed. Holmes' spokeswoman, Kimberly Mills, said "the issue is under review."

State law allows public or city attorneys to ask superior-court judges to convene a grand jury, which can be used by prosecutors to obtain testimony and seek criminal charges.

But grand juries have not been used in King County in decades, leaving the decision to bring felony charges in the hands of the Prosecutor's Office. Holmes' office handles misdemeanor cases.

Satterberg said last month that state law prohibited him from filing charges because Birk believed that Williams, 50, a woodcarver who was carrying a knife, posed a threat and because there was no evidence Birk acted with malice. Police officers are given more protection against criminal prosecution for homicide than ordinary citizens, Satterberg explained.

In their letter, Ford and Brenneke challenged Satterberg's legal reasoning, saying Williams didn't take a "substantial step" toward assaulting Birk.

"No free society allows police to exact capital punishment on anyone they suspect is 'going to' commit a serious crime," they wrote.

The attorneys said they didn't expect Satterberg to change his mind, but asked that he consider whether there are valid arguments to allow a grand jury to hear evidence.

The last King County grand jury was in 1971 in a police-corruption case, said David Boerner, a law professor emeritus at Seattle University and a former chief criminal deputy prosecuting attorney in King County.

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Grand juries fell out of use after the state Legislature created a new proceeding — the inquiry judge — that gave prosecutors the same ability to secretly obtain evidence, Boerner said.

Boerner said he doubts the grand-jury requests will succeed because a grand jury would be overseen by the Prosecutor's Office, which has already decided charges aren't warranted.

Boerner also noted that an inquest jury already has heard testimony on Williams' death, making it unnecessary to gather more information.

Satterberg's decision also has been questioned by Seattle attorney James Lobsenz, who in a Feb. 24 letter to Satterberg wrote that the malice language in state law is "not constitutional because it gives a special immunity against criminal prosecution to police."

In a March 2 reply letter, Satterberg replied: "It seems to me that state law creates a multitude of preferences that are available to many different groups of citizens through the means of a professional license or official commission."

Lobsenz had no involvement in the case and wrote to Satterberg as a citizen.

Birk, 28, who joined the Police Department in July 2008, stopped his patrol car and got out after he saw Williams, a First Nations member from Canada and chronic inebriate in Seattle, cross the street holding a piece of wood and a folding knife.

Birk followed Williams onto a sidewalk, shouted at Williams to get his attention and ordered him three times to put down the knife. About four seconds after issuing the first command to put down the knife, Birk opened fire.

At the court inquest in January, Birk testified he fired because Williams displayed a "confrontational posture." Two witnesses testified they didn't see Williams do anything threatening.

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this story.

Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or smiletich@seattletimes.com

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