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.”
When asked about the office’s course of action, the prosecutor’s office recently declined to comment on the likelihood of criminal charges. “(The Birk case) is under review,” said spokesman Dan Donohoe. The Times reported that the department said no official decision had been made, but the paper cited sources as saying an announcement of no charges would be forthcoming.
No matter what the prosecutor's decision, the Birk case is unlikely to disappear from the headlines or from court. The incident has incited outrage on the part of members of Seattle’s civil rights and Native American communities, and a civil suit against Birk seems likely.
That outrage has significant consequences for SPD. In response to a request submitted by 35 community groups, including the ACLU, the Justice Department has begun the preliminary stages of what could become a large-scale federal civil rights review of the Seattle Police Department.