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Originally published March 31, 2011 at 5:04 PM | Page modified March 31, 2011 at 9:57 PM

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Feds investigating officer's shooting of woodcarver

The Department of Justice Civil Rights Division is reviewing the August 2010 shooting death of First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams by Ian Birk, who was a Seattle police officer, to determine whether federal civil-rights laws were broken.

Seattle Times staff reporter

The U.S. Department of Justice is reviewing whether to file federal criminal charges in the August shooting death of First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams by a Seattle police officer.

The investigation will examine whether former Officer Ian Birk violated Williams' civil rights when he shot and killed him on a downtown city sidewalk. Williams failed to respond to repeated commands that he drop a pocket knife.

"The Department was previously monitoring the local investigation and now that their review is complete, we will conduct an independent review of the facts to determine if the evidence indicates a prosecutable violation of federal criminal civil-rights laws," said Xochitl Hinojosa, a spokeswoman for Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, in a prepared statement Thursday.

The investigation is separate from the civil investigation of the Seattle Police Department announced earlier Thursday. That federal investigation will look at the "patterns and practices" of the department with respect to use-of-force and discriminatory policing.

Birk, who had been a Seattle officer for two years at the time of the shooting, resigned in February after state prosecutors announced they did not have enough evidence to charge him with Williams' death. State law gives considerable deference to police officers who use deadly force, recognizing they often have to make split-second decisions.

His attorney, Ted Buck, said the Justice Department is wasting its time and resources looking to prosecute an officer who followed his training and shot because he feared for his life.

"They're going to find nothing, because they are looking for something that doesn't exist," Buck said.

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg announced in February that the state could not charge Birk because the law required prosecutors to show the officer acted with malice and without good faith.

Federal prosecutors would face a similar burden. They would have to show that Birk, acting under the authority granted him as a police officer, willfully and intentionally deprived Williams of a protected civil right.

Legal experts have said that language provides a difficult burden for prosecutors and it's rare that the government obtains a conviction. Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce Miyake, a senior criminal prosecutor, sat through the county inquest into Williams' death.

Retired Saint Louis University professor Steven Puro, who has conducted research on the role of federal civil-rights prosecutions in local police accountability, has said those cases have proved hard to bring and even harder to win because it is difficult to prove an officer willfully intended to violate someone's rights.

It's particularly problematic in shooting cases, which often involve split-second decisions, he said.

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The U.S. Attorney's Office in Seattle lost the only such criminal prosecution brought in the Western District of Washington when, in 2008, a federal jury acquitted a former King County sheriff's deputy accused of kicking a woman during a 2005 arrest.

The Williams shooting outraged many in the community, and his family and their attorneys have demanded justice. Williams was a well-known public inebriate who had numerous nonviolent contacts with police before the shooting.

Tim Ford, the attorney for the Williams family, said Thursday he was encouraged by the Justice Department's decision.

"We would like to have this investigated as impartially as possible," he said. "The federal government would be the most logical candidate remaining. That sounds like a positive development."

Ford said he would continue to pursue his petition asking the King County Superior Court judges to convene a citizen grand jury to determine whether criminal charges should be brought against Birk.

Ford filed the petition March 16 after Satterberg said state law precluded him from charging Birk with a crime.

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com

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