Cop Who Shot Native Woodcarver Can Expect to Skate

On Monday, King County Executive Dow Constantine ordered an inquest into the August 30 shooting of Seattle woodcarver John T. Williams by a Seattle police officer. Officer Ian Birk says Williams came at him with a knife and refused his commands, forcing him to fire. Even though Williams was hard of hearing, was shot in the side, and may not have realized he was bringing his carving knife to a gun fight, Birk is certain to testify he felt his life was in peril by a man with a weapon. Under the county inquest system, that has historically swayed jurors to almost always find cop shootings justified. Take the case of Antonio Dunsmore. The mentally ill 31-year-old was backed up to a wall at Garfield Community Center in 1995, with eight Seattle police officers, guns drawn, taking beads on him from behind their cars 20 feet away. At 1 a.m., he'd been reported acting in an erratic and threatening manner. Officers were protected by their cars, the area was sealed off, and a police negotiator was on the way. Then Dunsmore drew what looked to be a gun, and someone opened fire. Only it wasn't Dunsmore who pulled the trigger, and his clear plastic water pistol with multicolored innards was a toy. Officers said they thought it was a silver semiautomatic. In a blink, one cop began shooting, then another, then all eight. Dunsmore was hit at least 19 times, fell backwards and died. A six-member King County Coroner's inquest jury would unanimously find the cop fusillade "unnecessary, but justified"—a fatal kind of catch-22: Dunsmore shouldn't have been killed, but it wasn't wrong for police to kill him. As Seattle Weekly reported in 1999, justified is typically the finding of a King County inquest jury, regardless of the victim's race, sex, age, or level of guilt. (In the one known case of an unjustified finding made in the past 40 years—the shooting of a black man in 1971—the officer was never charged with a crime.) That has been the case in the past 10 years as well. Inquest jurors are impaneled to hear the facts, but few of the extenuating circumstances, of deaths involving law enforcement officers. Their findings are reviewed by prosecutors who find it easier not to charge officers when an inquest concludes their actions were justified. That was clearly the case this year when an inquest jury unanimously agreed that SPD officer Benjamin Kelly believed Lakewood cop killer Maurice Clemmons posed an imminent threat when Kelly killed him last December. Yet that was also the finding in 2000 when Seattle police officer Carl Chilo shot and killed a man named Michael J. Okarma in South Park, even though the officer shot Okarma in the back of the head. As longtime Seattle criminal defense attorney Lem Howell put it, the inquest findings may always be "justified, but not justice."

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