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caption: Tonya Isabell, left, speaks Thursday, June 18, 2020, during a vigil for her cousin Charleena Lyles, pictured at right, on the third anniversary of her death, in Seattle. Lyles was shot and killed by Seattle police. Also in attendance at the vigil were family members of nearly two dozen people killed by police across the country who traveled to Seattle to urge police reform, an issue renewed by protests against the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
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Tonya Isabell, left, speaks Thursday, June 18, 2020, during a vigil for her cousin Charleena Lyles, pictured at right, on the third anniversary of her death, in Seattle. Lyles was shot and killed by Seattle police. Also in attendance at the vigil were family members of nearly two dozen people killed by police across the country who traveled to Seattle to urge police reform, an issue renewed by protests against the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Credit: AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

Charleena Lyles' family reels after inquest jury finds Seattle cops justified in her shooting death

A King County inquest jury has found that two Seattle police officers’ use of deadly force was justified when they shot and killed Charleena Lyles, a pregnant mother of four, as they responded to her 911 call in 2017.

The jury, which returned its findings Wednesday afternoon, determined that the officers had largely followed department policies and training.

Lyles’ family members say they reject the findings. Advocates for police reform criticized the jury’s decision and the inquest process overall.

Karen Koehler, an attorney for the family, said in a statement that the family didn’t blame the jury for the decision. Koehler added that proceedings didn’t focus on Lyles’ mental health history and instead centered on officers from the Seattle Police Department and what they were thinking at the time.

“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. In those circumstances officers are not trained to disarm. They are not trained to wound. They are trained to shoot to kill,” the statement said.

Lyles, a pregnant Black woman, called officers to her apartment for a suspected burglary on June 18, 2017.

Officers Steven McNew and Jason Anderson, who responded to the call, say Lyles’ demeanor suddenly changed partway through their encounter and she lunged at one of them with a knife.

They shot Lyles seven times in front of her children. Three of the shots came from behind her, according to testimony from a member of the King County medical examiner’s office.

Lyles’ death spurred community outrage and calls for police reform during a period in which several Black people were shot by police in King County.

Katrina Johnson, Lyles’ cousin, said she felt numb after hearing the jury's findings, and added that Seattle police’s policies are problematic.

“None of that stuff is really going to change if we keep deeming the killing of people in our community as justified, and I think that is the problem in essence,” Johnson said.

“At the end of the day, Charleena Lyles was a loving mother of four, she was pregnant,” Johnson said.

She said her cousin experienced mental health issues, adding that many people struggle with mental health at some point in their lives.

“We should not be condemned to our death because of it,” she said.

The officers involved have testified that they had no choice but to shoot Lyles after she lunged at Anderson with a knife and then turned her attention to McNew, who was in the kitchen area.

Ted Buck, an attorney for officers Anderson and McNew, said the outcome of the inquest “was really very relieving to the officers.”

In a statement, SPD called Lyles’ death a “tragic event” and thanked the jury for their “thoughtful and careful deliberation.”

Six jury members weighed 123 questions in the case and were instructed to answer “Yes,” “No,” or “Unknown” to each question.

They agreed that the officers, who'd been aware of a previous encounter Lyles had with SPD, knew she had a history of mental health issues.

All six jurors also agreed that Anderson did not follow SPD policy when he failed to take his taser to the call at Lyles’ apartment.

In recorded audio from the incident that was played for the jury, officer McNew can be heard calling for a taser, although he later testified he just wanted to slow Lyles down and believed, based on the situation and his training, that shooting Lyles was the most appropriate action.

Even if a taser had been available, all jurors agreed it wouldn’t have been a reasonably effective alternative to the use of deadly force. They also unanimously found that the officers didn’t have a reasonable alternative to the use of deadly force when they fired.

Jurors weren’t unanimous in their answers to all questions, however.

They were split in their findings of whether officers knew where in the living room Lyles’ children were before they fired.

Two jurors said the children were at risk of being struck by bullets when the officers fired, while four answered “unknown.”

The results of the inquest are not legally binding, but will likely play a role in whether the King County Prosecutor decides to charge the officers.

King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg called the details of Lyles’ death “heartbreaking” in a statement and said his office will review the case “in the coming weeks.”

The county can convene an inquest after a fatal officer-involved shooting. The process has been revamped in recent years with the goal of providing more transparency and legal support for victims’ families, and correcting what critics said was a bias towards law enforcement.

Under the previous inquest process, families had to pay for their own attorneys. Additionally, jurors were asked to consider whether officers feared for their lives and police department policies were usually excluded from their discussions. The new process asks jurors to weigh whether officers acted within their department’s policy.

Attorneys representing the families have welcomed these changes. But lawyers who represent officers have criticized the new inquest process.

Buck said the system isn’t working the way that it ought to and it exposes officers to potential criminal liability.

Johnson, Lyles’ cousin, said the process was traumatizing for her.

“I don’t know where my family goes from here,” she said. “I don’t know how we begin to pick up the pieces after this process.”

This case is the second in a long line of reviews that will go through the county’s new inquest system. Jurors who reviewed the first case heard under the new process, invloving a 19-year-old man who was killed in a shoot-out with police, also found officers' use of force "justifiable."

Reverend Harriett Walden and Reverend Patricia Hunter, co-chairs of Seattle’s Community Police Commission, said the jury’s findings in the Lyles inquest were surprising and disappointing to them.

“I expected more of the new system and it seems to me that there might be some gaps in that system,” said Rev. Walden, who founded Mothers for Police Accountability.

Walden said the questions posed to jurors seemed to be narrow in scope, and she had hoped more information would have been included in the inquest process. Walden added that the new process does seem to create more transparency than the old one, but it’s too early to tell if the new inquest process is better.

Rev. Hunter said she thinks the Community Police Commission will need to take a look at how the Lyles inquest played out. Hunter also said she wants to look at how the process supports the victims’ family and whether there is more that can be done.

“It felt as if they just continued to be traumatized over and over again through this process, and I’m not sure that this new process actually helped the family any more than the old,” Hunter said.

In light of the jury’s findings, Hunter also said that the commission, community, and SPD need to look at what department policies and training entail.

“If everything was in policy then we need to definitely take a look at the policies,” she said.

Inquest proceedings for Lyles’ death unfolded over select weekdays in June and July.

The jury and members of the public, including Lyles’ family, saw graphic photos from the scene of the shooting and heard wrenching testimony about how Lyles’ children reacted.

At one point, an altercation between Officer McNew and members of Lyles’ family occurred outside the building where the inquest was held, and Seattle SWAT officers later arrived to review security footage of the incident, to the condemnation of Inquest Administrator Michael Spearman, who called the police response “excessive,” according to The Seattle Times.

Later, two lawyers involved in the inquest received positive Covid test results during proceedings — as did two jurors.