A six-member inquest jury began deliberations Tuesday into the actions of two Seattle police officers who fatally shot Charleena Lyles in her apartment in 2017.
The jury will weigh responses of “Yes,” “No,” or “Unknown” to 123 questions relating the circumstances surrounding the death of Lyles on June 18, 2017. She was killed after purportedly brandishing a knife at two officers who had responded to her report of a burglary.
Lyles, 30, the mother of four children, was four months pregnant when Officers Jason Anderson and Steven McNew shot her seven times just outside the kitchen of her small apartment near Magnuson Park. The officers testified that Lyles went from conversational to confrontational in seconds, pulling a knife from her pocket and advancing on the officers, who drew their service firearms and repeatedly ordered “Get back!” before firing. Audio of the shooting was recorded via personal microphones synced to the officer’s in-car video system.
Lyles yelled “Do it!” and profanities at the officers before they opened fire.
Three of Lyles’ children where in the apartment at the time, and the officers testified about how a crying infant crawled on top of his mother’s body and a preteen boy came out of a bedroom and said, in tears, “You shot my mother.”
The shooting death of Lyles, who was Black, galvanized Seattle’s African American community and has been held up by advocates of police reforms as demonstrating unnecessary police violence and institutional racism by law enforcement.
The inquest process was reinstated this year after a five-year hiatus brought about by complaints from family and community members that the previous iteration was hopelessly biased in favor of police.
King County Executive Dow Constantine promulgated new inquest rules, including the appointment of an attorney for families, which led to lawsuits by King County law enforcement agencies that preferred the old system, which often involved asking the jury simply whether the officer had reason to fear for their safety before resorting to deadly force.
The revised inquest rules allow the jury to determine the facts surrounding a law enforcement-related death, whether policies were followed and whether criminality was involved in the death.
King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg has said his office traditionally will review officer-involved deaths and charge if appropriate; however, he has said he reserves his final charging decision pending the completion of an inquest.
Inquest jurors in the Lyles case will be asked to consider the facts surrounding her death in light of the police deadly-force statute that was in effect in 2017, which requires a finding of “actual malice” by the officer — a standard that was changed by voter approval of Initiative 940 in 2018, after prosecutors and lawmakers concluded it was virtually impossible to meet that standard to charge an officer with murder.
Before then, it had been more than 30 years since a law-enforcement officer in King County was charged for killing someone.
The Lyles inquest lasted eight days and included 19 witnesses, including SPD officials involved in training, neighbors who heard the commotion in the Lyles apartment and wound up caring for her children, and the two involved officers, both saying they did not want to shoot Lyles but had no choice when she suddenly pulled a knife and confronted them with a “lethal threat.”
The family’s attorney, Karen Koehler, focused on whether the officers could have used a less-lethal alternative to shooting Lyles such as a Taser. Testimony showed that Anderson was a certified Taser officer and was supposed to be carrying that alternative to a firearm the day of the shooting, but had left it in his locker because the battery was dead.
Anderson, who had been an officer for less than two years, was disciplined for that failure. Just before the shots were fired, McNew — a 13-year veteran Seattle police officer and certified crisis-intervention expert — hollered “Taser!” although he testified Monday that the device would not have been an appropriate response to a lethal threat.
Jurors heard testimony that Lyles had threatened another group of Seattle officers 13 days earlier, when police were dispatched to a domestic violence call.
Then, Lyles, who had an infant in the apartment, cornered an officer and threatened him with a large pair of shears, according to testimony. She was arrested after officers persuaded her to drop the weapon.
During that call, Lyles told police she was going to “morph” into a wolf and made other statements that gave rise to questions about her mental health. An “officer safety warning” was entered into the system and, when seen by Anderson two weeks later, caused him to call for a backup officer — McNew — for security.
Asked why he called for it, McNew responded, “I really didn’t want to shoot her,” he said. “I just wanted to slow her down.”