By: Carte Bisbee
People in the country might remember the day an African American teenage boy named Trayvon Martin was shot by a neighborhood officer in the middle of the night. It was a massive media controversy. Something similar is happening at a state level on the west coast of Washington.
Lisa Hayes is a campaign manager for Initiative I-873. The initiative would amend a section of criminal law in the state. It is sponsored by “Washington for Good Policing,”whose goal is to inform citizens of Washington about a section of the law known as the “malice clause.”
According to Lisa “It is virtually impossible to charge an officer in deadliest force crimes in Washington state. When I say virtually impossible, I mean this law in the way it’s written has been in place since 1986….” Lisa goes on the explain: “We have seven words of language in our statute that are referred to as the malice clause definitively stating that a prosecutor has to be able to prove that an officer acted out of malice, which is legally defined as evil intent. You have to be able to prove that an officer was thinking evil thoughts.”
The initial reason for this initiative amendment was the death of a Native American man that took place five years ago. J According to Indian Country Today Media Network on August 30th, 2010, at around 4:15 pm John T. Williams, a 50-year-old seventh-generation Nitinaht carver of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation, was walking a street in downtown Seattle carrying a chunk of cedar the size of a phone book and a wood carving knife. Seattle officer Ian Birk, who was 27 years old, grew suspicious when he witnessed a civilian openly carrying a knife in downtown Seattle.
According to the record, Officer Birk came from behind John T. Williams and told him three times to drop the the wood carving knife. When Williams failed to do so within approximately four seconds, Birk open fired five times from a distance of 10 feet. Williams was shot by four of the bullets, including a shot to the chest that killed him at the scene.
The response to the shooting included the resignation of Seattle officer Ian Birk the day after King County prosecutor Dan Satterberg chose to not press charges against him. Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn declared February 27, 2011, to be “John T. Williams Day” in the city of Seattle—a day of remembrance for him. In August 2011, the City of Seattle paid Williams’ family a settlement of 1.5 million. A year later, a 34-foot-high totem pole was erected at the Seattle Center.
Washington for Good Policing notes other experiences similar to Williams’, including a case in which two African American boys who were shot in Olympia two years ago. Lisa states that King county’s prosecutor Dan Satterberg, the president of the Prosecutor Association and the same prosecutor who chose not to press charges on officer Birk, says “That’s why it [the malice clause] is an unmeetable bar.”.
Lisa Hayes needs to collect 250,000 signatures. These signatures will enable a change to the malice clause and make the law more reasonable, “so this is 250,000 conversations,” as Lisa sees it.
Realistically, Lisa has gone out on a limb for Initiative I-873. “We’ve hired a consulting firm; we will have to pay to put signatures together on the street. Democracy in our country is not cheap; it’s not what it used to be—where you used to get engaged citizens who were passionate about initiatives.”
Now it’s up to the public to get the job done. It’s up to the citizens of Washington to come together. If the signature goal is met and the initiative passes, prosecutors will be able to press charges without the requirement of malice.
Section 3 of RCW 9A.16.040 states, “A public officer or peace officer shall not be held criminally liable for using deadly force without malice and with a good faith belief that such act is justifiable pursuant to this section.” According to Lisa, because of this short but potent clause, “…Amnesty International says that we [Washington] have the worst law in the entire country….”