Jenny Durkan: Cop who killed Native man wasn't charged either

A totem pole was raised in honor of John T. Williams, a Native woodcarver who was killed by police officer in Seattle, Washington. Photo by Michele Storms / Facebook

Jenny Durkan, the former U.S. Attorney in Western Washington, recounts the death of John Williams, a Native woodcarver, at the hands of a police officer:
In 2010, I was the chief federal prosecutor in Seattle. That year, there were a number of high profile incidents involving use of force by Seattle Police officers. Many were caught on video (including one that showed a gang unit cop yelling he was going to “kick the f ***ing Mexican piss” out of a prone and unarmed suspect), and the images weren’t pretty.

Things reached fever pitch when Seattle police officer Ian Birk shot and killed John T. Williams, an unarmed Native American woodcarver. Williams was walking on a downtown Seattle street, tool in hand. As he crossed the street in front of a police car, the officer got out, followed Williams and ordered him to drop his knife.

Just seven seconds later, when Williams failed to comply, the officer shot him multiple times. Later, that officer testified he felt threatened.

Like the shooting of Michael Brown, this case went to local and state authorities for review of possible criminal charges. In January 2011, a local inquest jury found that the officer was not in danger, and that Williams (who had hearing impairments) did not have adequate time to drop his knife.

But a majority of jurors also found that the officer did believe Williams was a threat. They made this seemingly contradictory ruling because the state sets a very high legal burden for prosecuting police. Under state law, the prosecutor must prove an officer acted with malice and without a good faith belief the shooting was justified. There was insufficient evidence to meet that standard, so the local state prosecutor determined state charges could not be brought.

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Jenny Durkan: As a federal prosecutor, I know how hard it is to charge officers like Darren Wilson (The Washington Post 11/24)

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