Behind the decision against filing charges in the shooting of John T. Williams

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg and his deputies faced serious obstacles in charging Officer Ian Birk, who shot and killed John T. Williams last August.

King County Courthouse: A county inquest returned findings in the police shooting of John T. Williams.

King County Courthouse: A county inquest returned findings in the police shooting of John T. Williams. Joe Mabel/Wikimedia Commons

Editor's note: At a press conference on Feb. 16, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said he would not file any charges in the case.

The King County Prosecutor's office is expected to announce as early as Wednesday (Feb. 16) whether or not it will prosecute Seattle police officer Ian Birk in the shooting of Native American woodcarver John T. Williams. The Seattle Times reported this evening that a decision against prosecution will be announced then.

The ambiguous conclusion of the inquest left the prosecutor's office in a difficult position, which may well have been compounded by an unsuccessful prosecution of an officer in Snohomish County.

At least one local law professor also foresaw difficulties for any prosecution in the relationship between the prosecutor's office and police.

Inquests do not carry any criminal consequences, but are an important guide to prosecutors. For prosecutors, an inquest is a dry run of a potential case in front of a jury.

Seattle University Law School Professor John Strait, who has worked as a prosecutor in California and is familiar with state self-defense law from a defense standpoint, speculated recently that it would be “unlikely that the prosecutor will charge Birk.”

The prosecutor’s office faces a number of challenges in convicting Birk if he is prosecuted. Chief among those challenges is the question of Birk’s intentions. “If you’re going to prosecute a cop for excessive force amounting to manslaughter or homicide, you have to prove that the officer acted with malice,” says Strait. “(The standard requires proof) that (the officer) acted with intent to harm (the victim). You have to prove he really wanted to get the guy.” Birk has presented the shooting as an act of self-defense.

The inquest brought out the cloudy nature of some of the aspects of the case. Witnesses and Birk presented several different versions of the afternoon’s events — Birk believed that Williams presented a threat to passers-by, while civilian witnesses perceived Williams as a normal pedestrian.

The jury leaned somewhat toward the witnesses’ version of events. Four jurors out of eight believed that Williams “pose(d no) imminent threat of serious physical harm to Officer Birk.” Three jury members were undecided and one agreed that Williams was a serious threat.

Several other key points of the incident are in dispute: Jurors were split on whether or not Williams was facing Birk when he was shot, if Williams was able to put down his knife before he was shot, and whether or not Williams’s knife blade was open or closed.

With a demanding burden of proof, Washington prosecutors are often loath to pursue prosecutions of police officers who have fired on citizens. A rare prosecution of such a case did occur in the past year, however.

Troy Meade, an Everett police officer, was cleared of all charges brought by the Snohomish County Prosecutor after a trial that centered around Meade’s fatal shooting of Niles Meservey, who was drunk and sitting in his car at the time of his death. Meade, who was standing in front of Meservey's car, said he thought the driver would run him over, and shot and killed Meservey in what Meade claimed was self-defense. The evidence against Meade included testimony from a police officer who was present and testified that he believed that there was no reason to fire on Meservey.

In contrast, Seattle Police officers seem to have closed ranks around their colleague. Officer William Collins, a 21-year veteran of the Seattle Police Department, testified that Birk’s actions on the day of the shooting were self-defense. In addition, an angry editorial declaiming diversity and sensitivity training penned by Officer Steve Pomper appeared in the Guardian, the Seattle Police Guild’s monthly newspaper in December, just before the inquest began.

Strait thinks that the hostility of SPD’s rank-and-file arising from the Birk case will give the prosecutor’s office pause — after all, prosecutors need to be on good terms with police officers. “There’s a conflict of interest—the prosecutor’s office has to work every day with cases that come out of SPD.” Mentioning the Guardian editorial, Strait said that “if you’re a prosecutor and you have to work with these people, you (don’t) really want to get in their face.”


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Feb 16, 2:44 p.m. Inappropriate

I've taken the time to sit down today and hand-write (what turned out to be) a 4 page letter to Satterberg, on my kids' notebook paper (to visually get his attention from anything on printer paper). I encourage everyone else to do the same. Emails and phone calls are too easily ignored these days.

Satterberg's misinterpretation of the 1986 law he quoted in the press conference--well, it goes without saying, doesn't it? In no way did the 1986 legislature intend to imply, suggest, sanction, or condone any officer who denies their oath and kills citizens. Nowhere in its wording or intent does the 1986 law give blanket absolution to police officers, as he insisted in his press conference today.

Birk's intent is blatantly clear: his weapon is already drawn as he is getting out of his car. There are only 7 seconds between his first word and first shot. (My family has been in law enforcement in WA state since 1984. Each officer is trained *not* to draw his weapon unless he has absolute intent to use it. He is also trained to wound/disable first--a "kill shot" is never to be his first choice. They are taught basic anatomy, i.e., knowing where a shot will actually kill someone, to prevent this.)

Each citizen has the legally ensured expectation of protection against just such a scenario that happened to John T. Williams. Satterberg violates his own oath of office by not enforcing the legally-ensured safeguards of the people. What proof or assurance do we have that this officer--or any other---will not go out and again take the law into his own hands?

Even Greece holds their police officers accountable: On Dec 6th, 2008, 15-year old Alexis Grigoropoulos was shot and killed by a police officer in Athens. This past October, that officer was found guilty of murder and is now serving a life sentence in a Greek prison. His partner was convicted of complicity. How much more swiftly should American justice move?

The British writer, Ben Elton, put it best, I think: "The public are in no greater danger than when the police believe themselves to be above the law." (Thin Blue Line, season 2)

The 1986 law absolutely allows for the prosecution of an officer who believes himself to be exempt. It is meant only to protect those officers who do *not* believe themselves to be above the law from prosecution when they find themselves dealing with a hostage situation where an innocent might be executed, etc.

Also, the psychological exam needs to be strengthened to weed out those who believe a badge shields them from criminal prosecution. Seriously, an officer who jumps out of his car with his weapon drawn in such a situation should never have passed the psychological. It is already *supposed* to weed out those who are 'trigger-happy.' Obviously, it's not doing that and needs to be redone.

There are many bad people in this world. None of them should ever have a chance to wear a badge.

Posted Wed, Feb 16, 6:47 p.m. Inappropriate

JustoneVoice....how elequently you put your words. I saw tonight on the streets of Seattle PEOPLE with one voice. I saw the Police, 12 motorcycle cops under the underpass of I-5 just waiting....I wondered who was watching the city for it's citizens? But then I saw the most beautiful thing...the real thing. The PEOPLE standing up for the life of John T. Williams. May he forever rest in peace. I was almost brought to tears. Stuck in traffic I could not get out and raise my voice with the others who are outraged at this incident and many others similar to it. So I rolled down my window, and I screamed into the wind at the people and raised my hand in definance -- NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE! The People spoke back. I am glad that we can still peacefully demonstrate, but we shall see what happens on the news tonight. I wonder how many will be arrested. My thoughts and prayers to the Creator for those who are speaking for John T. Williams tonight. Stay strong - the fight has just begun.

elves4me

Posted Sun, Mar 27, 2:19 p.m. Inappropriate

The decision not to prosecute Birk--are you kidding me? Satterberg claims that Olympia intended to protect Birk from prosecution under the circumstances of the John T. Williams slaying. He relies on RCW 9A.16.040(3), but fails to give legislative meaning to subsection (2). That subsection requires Birk to possess "probable cause to believe" not any self-proclaimed "belief that probable cause exists." The distinction is important in light of subdivision (2)(a) which requires Birk's belief to be reasonable--subdivision (3) does not override this requirement.
Now, turning to the facts of this case, you decide if Birk can legally be prosecuted. Birk admitted that he did not know whether the knife was illegal or not, but still existed his vehicle with a drawn weapon. Then he claimed he shot Williams to death within 9 seconds because he lunged at him with the knife. It is not reasonable to believe that Williams lunged at Birk sideways--how could the bullets enter Williams from his side? And why didn't Birk inform the nearby citizen Williams lunged at him rather than claiming, "he wouldn't drop the knife?" Nor is it reasonable to believe Williams closed the knife AFTER he was shot--is it reasonable to believe that the knife closed all by itself without an internal spring?
Satterberg believes Olympia intended with subsection (3) to exonerate Birk because the law clearly allows for a police officer to make a "good faith" mistake, no matter how unreasonable. Here is a question for you Mr. Satterberg: If Birk's actions from the start to finish were incompatible with his training and multiple, applicable departmental procedures, how is he different from any other gun-wielding citizen. Isn't it true that Olympia intended to protect officers who follow their training and proper procedure? Under your reading of the law no police officer could ever be prosecuted unless he was willing prosecuted.

wendell

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