Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Demonstrators mark first day of inquest into fatal shooting of woodcarver


Native Americans and other advocates for justice in the fatal shooting of
First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams gathered Monday morning outside
the King County Courthouse on the first day of an inquest into Seattle
police Officer Ian Birk's actions last summer.

By Steve Miletich and Lynda V. Mapes

About a dozen protesters, including Native Americans, gathered Monday
morning at the King County Courthouse on the first day of an inquest into
Seattle police Officer Ian Birk's fatal shooting of First Nations
woodcarver John T. Williams.

Outraged by what they consider an unjustified shooting, some marchers wore
headbands saying "4 seconds to death," a reference to the time between
when Birk first ordered Williams to drop a knife and the fatal shots.

"Sometimes you just have to draw the line," said Abe Johnny, a First
Nations member of the Cowichan band who has lived in Seattle since 1953.
"The Seattle Police Department has to follow their own policies. Do they
mean 'justice for all,' or do they mean 'justice for just us?' "

The protesters planned to move into the courthouse for the 9 a.m. start of
the inquest, which comes more than four months after the Aug. 30 shooting.
Security is tight at the proceeding, with an added metal detector on the
floor where the hearing is to be held.

As proceedings began, protesters listening to a TV feed in an overflow
courtroom took a moment to pray for justice.

Williams, 50, a street inebriate who was a member of the Ditidaht band of
the Nuu-Chah-Nulth First Nations in British Columbia, was struck by four

Still unknown is whether Birk will testify or invoke his Fifth Amendment
right against self-incrimination.

Birk, 27, who joined the Police Department in July 2008, has previously
said he feared for his life when Williams didn't respond to his commands
to drop a knife.

Williams died in a burst of gunfire witnessed by pedestrians and people in
cars during the late-afternoon rush hour.

Some witnesses told police that Williams did not act in a threatening
manner and are expected to testify at the inquest. Their recollections
will be crucial in sorting out an incident that was only partly captured
on the dashboard video camera in Birk's patrol car.

Three of John T. Williams' sisters traveled by bus Sunday from Vancouver,
B.C. to attend the hearing. Nancy and Linda Williams brought their carving
tools with them, intending to work throughout the week they are here for
the proceedings. All of the Williams family are carvers since childhood,
and they carve both for a living, and because, as Nancy puts it, "it's who
we are."

John Williams was born at Harborview Medical Center, and made Seattle his
home most of his life. Two of Wiliams' brothers, Rick and Eric, live in
Seattle. The rest of the family is in B.C., including his mother, Ida who
has said she believes her son was murdered.

Protester Doreen McGrath said she stood in the cold and snow with the
others early Monday as a show of solidarity. "I want to see justice
served," she said. "I want to see the police held accountable."

Inquest jurors will answer questions at the end of the proceeding,
including some likely to touch on whether Williams posed a threat to Birk.
A final list of questions won't be prepared until the jury hears all the

The jury's answers, which do not have to be unanimous, could indicate
whether they think Birk was justified. But the jury will not be asked to
reach a criminal or civil finding.

Its answers will be considered by the King County Prosecutor's Office in
determining whether a criminal charge against Birk is warranted.

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