Friday, January 21, 2011

Birk inquest findings more damning on second thought

At first blush, I was somewhat disturbed by the findings of the inquest in the killing of Native American woodcarver John T. Williams by Seattle police officer Ian Birk. Most of the questions were not surprisingly top-loaded in favor of police version of events, and only four of eight jurors agreed that Birk’s actions were ultimately unjustified. Bizarrely, seven jurors thought they heard Birk telling Williams to “come back to my location,” which is an odd way to interpret “hey, hey, hey”—not to mention that by “coming back to him” would have been interpreted by Birk as “threatening.” Five jurors thought that Williams’ upper body had not been “partially” turned toward Birk, yet in the very next breath those same jurors followed-up by stating Williams was in the process of turning toward Birk. Huh? The Seattle Weekly thought the inquest results were “mixed,” the Times thought the result was "divided," and KOMO’s white-bread commentator Ken Schram expressed the all too common attitude of white-bread people that innocent people dying at the hands of police is a “tragedy” rather than a crime.

But as I did initially, many people reached the wrong conclusion from what the jury actually said; a closer examination of the results suggest a very different meaning. Three jurors were apparently torn between their sympathy with police and the ugly truth that confronted them. Thus out of eight jurors, only one was certain that Birk had given Williams sufficient time to drop his knife before he fired the fatal shots. No juror would say that they believed Williams’ knife was open when Birk opened fire. And only one juror would say that they thought Williams posed an imminent threat to Birk. The answer was otherwise “no” or “unknown” to the key questions of justification.

Why is this significant? This is the first time that anyone around here can remember that more than one juror—let alone even one—gave the life of a victim of a police shooting any smidgen of consideration, certainly more than the officer in question did. On all other occasions, it is people like “Mom” in right-wing Bellevue finding it impossible to conceive any scenario where the victim of a police shooting isn’t guilty of “something.” But this case was different. One could not ignore the fact that Birk’s current version of events was different from the one he initially gave: That he saw Williams sitting on a wall with a knife, and when he confronted Williams, the latter jumped off the wall and advanced “menacingly” toward Birk with knife in hand. The alternate story (which Birk and his handlers were obliged to concoct because of the evidence of the police car dashcam gave the lie to the first one) could not be “credible” if it was not supported by another deception: That Williams had turned to face Birk, assumed a crouched position and menaced him with an open knife. While I’ve read several news stories that insist that Birk was the only “living” witness to events, this was of course not true; three witnesses testified at the inquest who flatly contradicted Birk’s story and stated that they did not observe Williams make any threatening gestures. The defense’s efforts to undermine witnesses’ testimony by suggesting that they had not kept their eyes on Williams at all times was merely pathetic. The coroner’s report seemed to offer a fig-leaf of “substance” to Birk’s claim that he had been “threatened”—one wound suggested that Williams’ arm was in a “raised” position—but could have easily been dismissed by acknowledging that four bullets had been fired, and that the alleged “raising” of the arm was a reflexive action in the midst of the shooting. And who did the shooting? That man in the courtroom with the wild-eyed look.

What happened here is quite simple. Williams, who employed himself (when not in a chronic state of inebriation) as a carver of miniature totem poles, was walking through a crosswalk where a police officer was waiting at a stop light. Williams seemed oblivious to everything around him, all his attention concentrated on his project; he never even implied a “threatening” gesture toward Birk, in fact it didn’t even appear that he wasn’t even aware there was a police car there. So why did Birk decide that Williams was a “threat?” Williams’ knife was legal, and he was obviously employing it in a manner that was only a threat to the piece of wood he was holding. Was it because Williams was a racial minority, and such people must have some criminal intent, and so they must be harassed or intimidated at every opportunity, and because society not only allows it, but demands it? Did Birk act on an instinctual impulse because Williams was a non-Asian minority? It is a matter certainly worth examining, given what we’ve learned about the thought-processes of police in their guild newspaper. It is also apparent that Williams did, in fact, respond to Birk’s “commands,” by closing his knife in an effort to remove it as a source of “threat.” The facts reveal that the few seconds that passed between Birk’s “drop the knife” and the gunshots was not sufficient for any normal person to convey a command from the brain to the body to perform any further action; Birk’s story also relies on the completely bogus assumption that Williams even had time to calculate an “attack” plan before (or between) command and shots. Birk, on the other hand, seems to have acted like an instinctive mad man, which is why he would be a danger to the public by putting him back on the street with a gun and badge. From the first moment to last, Birk was the only person in this incident who posed a threat to anyone.

The Weekly expressed the opinion that the finding of "unknown" could easily be translated into "reasonable doubt" in a jury trial, should city prosecutors take that route. Maybe a local trial would produce such a result; but as occurred in the matter of the hate crime murder of a Latino man in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, the federal courts are not adverse to indicting--and convicting--on civil rights charges. That Birk violated Williams' civil rights is much harder even for police apologists to ignore.

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