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Family of officer-involved shooting victim: Inquest process is flawed

20-year-old Tommy Le was shot and killed the night before her was set to graduate from high school.
Credit: KING
Tommy Le, 20, was fatally shot by deputies after he refused to drop what the deputies believed was a knife but was actually a pen.

One-sided. Flawed. Unfair.

That's what the family of a Burien man killed by a King County deputy is now saying about inquests into officer-involved shootings.

20-year-old Tommy Le died in June. The King County Sheriff's Office has said a deputy shot him, after Le refused to drop what officers thought was a knife. But it turned out it was a pen in Le's hand, not a weapon.

In October King County Executive Dow Constantine ordered an inquest into the fatal shooting. Constantine's office has said inquests are fact-finding hearings to determine the causes and circumstances of any death involving a member of law enforcement.

"Unlike a typical trial there will be no decisions here about liability, no decisions about responsibility. This is not a policy review. I say to the jurors when they come in, we are not asking you what could have happened, what some people think maybe should have happened, what could have been done different. The scope of this inquest is what did happen. What factually happened on the night of this incident from the perspective of the people that were there and the evidence that was gathered," explained King County District Court Judge Susan Mahoney.

Mahoney provided that explanation to Le's family members during a preliminary hearing that took place Friday afternoon.

But just prior to that hearing, the family and their attorney expressed serious concerns about the inquest process.

"Give us a voice to speak. You know, we want to know the truth about what happened. Why did that deputy take our Tommy? Why did he shoot Tommy," said Xuyen Le, who is Tommy's aunt.

Attorney Jeff Campiche said they feel the current inquest process is too one-sided.

"There's no opportunity for the family's lawyer to address the inquest jury, so the only narrative they hear, the only story they hear, comes from the sheriff's office," said Campiche. "That's the point. The point is that the way King County does it, it becomes a whitewash for the agency that kills your civilians."

Campiche said he sent a letter to King County Executive Dow Constantine, asking that changes be made to the current inquest process. Specifically, they're asking that the family's attorney is allowed full participation and litigation rights in the inquest. Campiche wants to be able to call and question his own witnesses and experts.

He filed a court motion on Friday making the same request to a judge, and re-iterated the request during Friday's hearing.

"The openness of the hearing and the evidence considered and the right of the family to have a voice in the hearing to the inquest jury are important," he told Mahoney.

In response, Mahoney agreed to hear the motion at a hearing now set for January 12. But on Friday, she said she didn't think she had the authority to make changes to the inquest process.

"I only have the authority that is given to me by the Executive in the ordinance," she said.

A spokesperson for the King County Executive's office said on Friday that an internal review of the inquest process was already underway, even before the Le family expressed concern.

But he said the executive's office can't make exceptions to procedures that are established by the executive order governing inquests in King County. That means the inquest in the Tommy Le case will likely go forward as is.

The executive order governing inquests can be found here. The executive's office said it would be unfair to make an exception to the current policy.

Le's family has already said they plan to file a civil lawsuit against the King County Sheriff's Office in connection to the case. They will seek $20 million in damages for what they believe was a violation of civil rights.