License to kill

For decades, county inquests have found police shootings justified. Is it justice, or a whitewash sanctioning legal murder?

ANTONIO DUNSMORE was in a tight spot. Illuminated at night by the headlamps and spotlights of a half-dozen Seattle police cars, he stood backed up to a wall at Garfield Community Center. Eight Seattle police officers, guns drawn, safely hidden behind their blue-and-whites 20 feet away, shouted orders. "Hands over your head! On the ground!" Dunsmore didn't seem to understand. Decked out in an odd array— T-shirt, ski gloves and sunglasses—at one o'clock in the chilly morning, Dunsmore had been reported acting in an erratic and threatening manner. At the moment, he was making stabbing motions at the ground with a tiny knife and squinting into the lights.

With no other way out, a betting man might flop down and assume the position. But the sky was a different color in Antonio Dunsmore's world. Unemployed, he lived off a state mental disability payment, and at age 31 was still being watched over by his Filipino mother. The dramas in his mind left Lourdes Dunsmore's boy sometimes talking to himself, gesturing excitedly, disconnected from his surroundings—facts unknown to the anxious cops.

The death of Michael Ealy in a struggle with police was found justified. His mother, Ophelia (center), filed a $1 million claim; two officers have countersued, saying her suit is an "injury" to them.
Rick Dahms
The death of Michael Ealy in a struggle with police was found justified. His mother, Ophelia (center), filed a $1 million claim; two officers have countersued, saying her suit is an "injury" to them.

Then: "I saw the weapon. I saw the butt of the gun," officer Erik Warner would recall later. "He pulled something out of his pocket, which was the gun."

Police say Dunsmore took a shooter's stance. Officers were protected by their cars, the area was sealed off, and a police negotiator was on the way. "He was probably blinded by the bright spot lights" as well, says Dunsmore family attorney Nolan Wright.

But someone opened fire anyway.

It wasn't Dunsmore. Like his little knife, his gun, a clear plastic water pistol with multicolored innards, was a toy.

Officers say they thought it was a silver semiautomatic. In a blink, one began shooting, then another, then all eight. Chaos and sizzling bullets rained down. Within seconds, the cops had fired 25 shots. Dunsmore was hit at least 19 times. He fell backwards, limbs splayed, driven by the shots that splattered his blood in the hard white beams. As the gunsmoke drifted off, he lay perforated with 28 entrance and exit wounds.

Antonio Dunsmore was so dead that early April morning in 1995 that, his mother says, police didn't bother with first aid or attempt to revive him.

But then, it was Dunsmore's fault he got killed.

A six-member King County coroner's inquest jury would unanimously find the cop fusillade "unnecessary, but justified"—a fatal kind of catch-22: Dunsmore shouldn't have been killed, but it wasn't wrong for police to kill him. In effect, the jury concluded Antonio Dunsmore's wrongful actions got him rightly blown away.

That was the finding an inquest jury made a year later, as well, after Edward Anderson, 28, was shot to death point-blank, on his back, surrendering, in a Central District backyard. A Seattle officer said his gun went off accidentally. Even at that, Anderson, as a fleeing domestic violence suspect, had put himself in harm's way, the jury thought.

Justified was also the finding in September this year for a King County sheriff's sniper who killed Shoreline-area crime-spree suspect Lonnie Davis, 21. It was the finding in April when Seattle officers were excused for the death of Michael Ealy, 35, who died from a struggle with police and ambulance attendants.

All of the above, like all those killed by Seattle police in the past five years, were minorities, whose death-by-police toll is dramatically disproportionate to Seattle's minority population. But color of skin is not the most common aspect of such killings. The end result is.

Justified, it turns out, is always the finding of a King County inquest jury, regardless of the victim's race, sex, age, or even level of guilt or innocence. Despite the widely varying circumstances of each case, some form of justifiable homicide has been the outcome of every King County District Court inquest in modern memory, save for a few ending without findings of any sort.

"Justified," says longtime Seattle criminal defense attorney Lem Howell, summing up the results. "But not justice."

IMPANELED TO HEAR the facts, but few of the extenuating circumstances, of deaths involving law enforcement officers, inquest juries are required to render only answers to a series of questions about the death; to wit, how it happened and who may have caused it. The public may think of an inquest jury as a grand jury, says Mark Larson, chief deputy in the King County Prosecutor's Office criminal division. But inquests are "designed to satisfy the public's right to know, not to indict or decide guilt," he notes.

His oft-times opponent Howell, who has represented families in a dozen county inquests, agrees somewhat, noting homicide inquests "perform the service of a public airing of the circumstances of death. When Edward Anderson was shot, his feet were hung up in a fence and a cop pointed a gun 12 inches from his Adam's apple and shot him, quote unquote, accidentally. That came out at the inquest. It was important to have it on the record." But Howell seriously questions the fairness of such hearings and, in the view of defense attorney Allen Ressler, also an inquest veteran, the inquiries "serve no useful purpose whatsoever. Most often the verdict is meaningless."

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