An inquest is an inquiry by a county coroner into a death characterized as suspicious or unnatural. An inquest is not a criminal proceeding, but an administrative hearing where the coroner submits evidence to impartial individuals to determine whether criminal charges should be pursued.
While rarely used in the past, there is renewed interest in inquests as communities attempt to hold police officers accountable for wrongful deaths of innocent citizens. Procedural changes allow King County, Washington citizens impacted by the death of a loved one to participate in the inquest process. Attorney Jennifer Horwitz’s experience in criminal and administrative proceedings and compassion for each of her clients provides her with the skills to represent the loved ones of the deceased in inquest proceedings.
Historical Use of Inquests
Revised Code of Washington section 68.50.010 provides that the remains of a deceased person whose death appears to be caused by suspicious circumstances or the result of a criminal act must be brought to the local morgue and held for identification and examination. Suspicious circumstances include where the deceased was otherwise in good health in the 36 hours prior to death or death appears to have been caused by unnatural or unlawful means. In such cases, the local coroner has jurisdiction over the deceased’s remains.
Authority to Conduct an Inquest in Washington
Revised Code of Washington section 36.24.20 authorizes a county coroner to hold an inquest if the coroner suspects a death of a person was unnatural, violent, resulted from unlawful means, under suspicious circumstances, or appears to have been caused by another person.
Procedure for Inquests
When the county coroner, at his or her discretion, decides to conduct an inquest, the coroner must notify the superior court of the coroner’s intent to conduct an inquest. The superior court must provide the coroner with a courtroom, a bailiff, court reporter, necessary security, and potential jurors. The costs of the inquest will be paid by the county in which the inquest is requested.
The coroner may subpoena witnesses and require the attendance of a witness at the inquest proceedings. The coroner will provide evidence to a sworn jury and allow the jury to issue a verdict similar to that in a criminal trial.
The jury’s verdict must indicate:
- Who died
- When the death occurred
- Where the death occurred
- The cause of death, and
- If the death was caused by criminal means, who is guilty of causing the death.
Not a Criminal Proceeding
Even though a jury might render a verdict indicating who caused the death of the deceased, an inquest is not a criminal proceeding. If the person determined to have caused the death of the deceased is not already in police custody, the coroner has a duty to deliver the jury’s findings and all evidence considered to the local prosecuting attorney for criminal prosecution.
King County: Inquests and the Pursuit of Justice
The recent deaths of African American individuals at the hands of police officers has sparked a greater debate concerning police oversight. In cases where the prosecutor’s office does not file charges against law enforcement, a coroner’s inquest can be a powerful tool in the pursuit of justice.
Recognizing the power of inquest proceedings to shed light on abuses of authority, King County, Washington opted to make inquests mandatory in all deaths involving law enforcement.
Mandatory When Death is at the Hands of Law Enforcement
King County, Washington issued an executive order requiring an inquest into the circumstances involving the death of an individual at the hands of law enforcement. Section 895 of the King County Charter provides:
“An inquest shall be held to investigate the causes and circumstances of any death involving a member of the law enforcement agency of the county in the performance of the member’s duties.”
The stated purpose of the mandatory inquest is to shed light on the facts surrounding a death at the hands of law enforcement and to promote public understanding of these events in our community.
Controversy from the Start
In January 2020, the City of Seattle filed a lawsuit against King County, Washington seeking a prohibition on the King County executive order mandating inquests in police-involved deaths. The city argued it was improper for a non-law enforcement agency to review and evaluate a law enforcement officer’s compliance with policy and training and to compel law enforcement officers to submit to subpoenas or requests for information.
In the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minnesota and other officer-involved deaths, the City of Seattle dropped the lawsuit in June 2020. The City Attorney cited the public’s demand for a transparent process as a reason for dropping the lawsuit.
King County Inquest Proceedings
In the situation where the deceased died at the hands of law enforcement, the deceased’s family may participate in the inquest. The deceased’s family may represent themselves, may be represented by private counsel, or can choose to be represented by the King County Public Defender.
The law enforcement officer(s) involved may choose to participate in the inquest but will not be forced to participate otherwise.
The inquest takes place before a panel (or jury) of 4 to 6 people and evidence is presented in the form of documents, video recordings, and witness testimony, including expert opinions. At the end of the presentation of evidence, the representative of the deceased’s family and any other participating parties may make a closing argument to the inquest panel.
From there, the inquest panel submits its findings, which may or may not be referred to the state prosecutor. Information from the inquest proceeding then becomes publicly accessible on the King County Inquest Program website.
Representation in an Inquest
Although inquests are administrative proceedings, in King County, family members of deceased individuals have a right to participate in law enforcement involved proceedings. Having practiced in Washington state for over 20 years, Jennifer Horwitz has extensive experience representing clients in a variety of legal proceedings and is a passionate advocate in the fight for justice. She is currently accepting new cases for law enforcement involved inquests and will ensure those responsible for the death of a loved one are held accountable.