An inquest jury found Wednesday that two Seattle police officers were justified in fatally shooting a mentally unstable, pregnant, Black mother of four children inside her apartment when she menaced them with knives in 2017.
The six King County coroner's inquest jurors unanimously determined that officers Jason Anderson and Steven McNew, who are white, had no reasonable alternative to using deadly force. The findings drew an angry outburst from Charleena Lyles' father, who shouted profanities and yelled, “You killed my daughter!”
The officers testified that Lyles, who had threatened other officers with shears two weeks earlier and spoke of morphing into a wolf, had been calmly speaking with them after calling to report a purported burglary when she suddenly lunged at one with a knife.
As the officers drew their weapons, Lyles yelled “Do it!” and cursed at them. The officers repeatedly yelled for her to get back before firing, hitting her seven times. The jury found that even if the officers had a Taser, it would not have been an effective or appropriate option as she advanced on them in the close confines of the apartment, The Seattle Times reported.
Her crying baby crawled over and climbed on top of her as she died, and a boy came out of a bedroom and said, in tears, “You shot my mother,” the officers recalled in emotional testimony.
Lyles was 15 weeks pregnant.
King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg issued a statement saying he would review the evidence presented at the inquest as well as the findings in deciding whether to press charges against the officers.
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“Charleena Lyles’ death is a tragedy,” Satterberg said. “Details of the incident shared at the inquest are heartbreaking.”
Her death unleashed a storm of public protest and has been held up by advocates of police reforms as demonstrating unnecessary police violence and institutional racism by law enforcement.
Family members questioned why the officers, who had been trained to deal with people showing signs of mental illness or other behavior crises, didn’t use nonlethal methods to subdue her. Anderson did not have his Taser with him — the battery was dead — and he was later suspended for two days without pay for violating department policy.
Under questioning from the family's lawyer, Karen Koehler, a Seattle police detective who helped review the shooting acknowledged that the officers had made no plan for dealing with Lyles aside from not allowing her to get behind them.
The family last year settled a civil lawsuit against the officers and the Seattle Police Department for $3.5 million.
The inquest began after a years-long delay prompted by revisions to the coroner's inquest process. It included six days of testimony. The jurors were asked to consider Lyles' death in light of the police deadly force law that was in effect in 2017, which requires a finding of “actual malice” by the officer — a standard that was changed in 2018 by voter approval of Initiative 940, after prosecutors and lawmakers concluded it was virtually impossible to meet that standard to charge an officer with murder.
An inquest jury can determine if law enforcement violated any policies and potentially any criminal laws. But any decision to charge a police officer is made by the King County prosecutor.