A jury found on July 6 that two Seattle police officers, Steven McNew and Jason Anderson, acted within the law when they killed 30-year-old Charleena Lyles in 2017. Lyles, a pregnant Black woman and mother of four, had called to report a burglary at her Sand Point apartment. McNew and Anderson responded to the call, which soon escalated.
The officers said that Lyles had a knife and threatened them, leading them to shoot the 110-pound woman seven times.
Upon the recess of the jury, Lyles’ father Charles Lyles expressed his dismay about the verdict. “Fuck both of you!” he told the police officers.
“You killed my daughter for nothing.”
In a statement, Lyles’ family’s attorney Karen Koehler said that the family rejected the ultimate findings from the inquest jury.
“During the 7 days of the inquest proceeding a solid and unflinching blue wall justified each and every action of its officers,” Koehler wrote.
“The process focused only on the officers’ states of mind. Not on Ms. Lyles. Despite requests for a fuller picture to be presented – including a forensic expert on the topic of her mental health – the scope was strictly narrowed. Ms. Lyles mental health was deemed irrelevant except for what the officers knew about her – which was not much at all.”
The six-person jury found McNew and Anderson’s accounts convincing, determining that McNew’s life was in danger and that there was no reasonable alternative to shooting Lyles.
The jury was convened as part of an inquest process, which is an investigative procedure. In King County, inquests are convened every time law enforcement officers kill someone to assess evidence of possible police wrongdoing. There are at least 56 outstanding inquests, according to the Seattle Times.
As part of the inquest process, the jury was presented with evidence throughout the three-week trial and asked to answer 123 “interrogatory” questions.
The inquest process has been contested for years, with Lyles’ family and other families of people killed by police alleging that the county failed to establish adequate investigations. Meanwhile, four cities argued that inquest process reforms started by King County Executive Dow Constantine in 2018 went too far. In 2021, the Washington Supreme Court sided largely with Constantine; however, it agreed with the families’ request that police officers could face questions from the victims’ lawyers.
The jury concluded that the police officers had seen Lyles’ children when they entered her apartment and that she initially complied with their orders. The jury, which was at times split on some of the answers, found that officer Anderson did not comply with the Seattle Police Department (SPD) policy governing taser use, for which he already received a two-day suspension. Anderson had left his taser in his locker because it was out of battery.
Seattle community members reacted to the decision, with many saying that the verdict further perpetuated injustice against Lyles and her family.
Criminal defense attorney Sadé A. Smith said that the verdict was reflective of a process extremely slanted toward police officers and the city.
In an email to Real Change, Smith wrote that the inquest process itself is biased because it creates a situation where families with limited legal resources have to argue against not only the police officers’ attorneys but also the full power of Seattle’s City Attorney’s Office. She also said that abolishing the police is the only way to prevent police murders.
“It’s devastating because it’s just another level of violence against our community that is not only perpetrated by the City but endorsed by it,” Smith wrote.
“The verdict says to us what US history has always told us: that white men’s unrealistic claims of ‘fear’ are justification for our death.”
The Seattle Community Police Commission, which is responsible for community oversight of SPD, wrote in a press release that they were disappointed by the jury’s decision.
“Charleena Lyles’ family and the community expected a different outcome. This doesn’t feel like justice,” said Rev. Patricia Hunter, a co-chair of the commission.
Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell also released a statement in reaction to the inquest verdict. “I continue to believe we are asking the wrong questions – not whether the use of lethal force was justified, but whether it was necessary,” he said.
Ted Buck, attorney for Anderson, said that he was glad the jury was objective and ruled in favor of the officers. He said that the officers “were doing their job” and that it was a complicated situation.
Buck also suggested that Lyles had called for assistance under “false pretenses.” He said that the suggestion that McNew and Anderson should have been aware that Lyles struggled with mental illness and thus approached the call differently could lead to police officers stereotyping or stigmatizing people with mental health issues.
In her statement, family attorney Koehler wrote that the inquest verdict essentially greenlit SPD officers to kill people in mental health crises who may appear to pose a threat.
“SPD’s policies practices and procedures are designed specifically to allow an officer to shoot and kill a person in mental crisis with a [paring] knife,” she wrote.
“In those circumstances officers are not trained to disarm. They are not trained to wound. They are trained to shoot to kill. The message is clear: if a person is in a mental health crisis and has any type of sharp edged instrument, tool or weapon – do not expect them to survive if 911 is called in Seattle,” she wrote.
SPD officers have killed multiple people experiencing mental health crises since 2017, including Ryan Smith in 2019 and Derek Hayden in 2021. No disciplinary action was taken in Smith’s case. Meanwhile, the officers responsible for Hayden’s death received one and three-day suspensions. Only one police officer has been charged with murder in King County since 2018 when Washington voters changed the law to make it easier to prosecute law enforcement.
For Lyles’ family, the tragedy and injustice of Charleena’s death will be felt for years. Given the decision of the inquest jury and continued police killings, it is unclear if local governments are willing to make the necessary changes to avert further losses of life.
Read more of the July 13-19, 2022 issue.