Now that the local investigations of the shooting of itinerant woodcarver John T. Williams are over, apparently the Department of Justice is investigating to see whether there is a civil rights violation in the case.
"The Department was previously monitoring the local investigation and now that their review is complete, we will conduct an independent review of the facts to determine if the evidence indicates a prosecutable violation of federal criminal civil-rights laws," said Xochitl Hinojosa, a spokeswoman for Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, in a prepared statement Thursday.
The investigation is separate from the civil investigation of the Seattle Police Department announced earlier Thursday. That federal investigation will look at the "patterns and practices" of the department with respect to use-of-force and discriminatory policing.
This is a very welcome development, as the relationship between the police department and the local prosecutors is, as usual, just a bit too cozy to trust in a fair outcome.
[Birk's] attorney, Ted Buck, said the Justice Department is wasting its time and resources looking to prosecute an officer who followed his training and shot because he feared for his life.
Now, let's remember that former Officer Birk got out of his car with his gun drawn, approached Williams from behind and fired five bullets at him all in roughly ten seconds, hitting him with four. The autopsy showed that Williams was not facing Birk when he was shot. Birk's lawyer is only doing his job, but the dashcam video from Birk's own car makes this spin just outrageous.
Sure, Williams was a belligerent, pain in the ass itinerant drunk (video below). There are plenty of police videos showing that, when drunk, he could be quite verbally abusive to the general public and to police officers who had to arrest him. That doesn't mean the police are entitled to shoot him indiscriminately.
Federal prosecutors [...] would have to show that Birk, acting under the authority granted him as a police officer, willfully and intentionally deprived Williams of a protected civil right.
Legal experts have said that language provides a difficult burden for prosecutors and it's rare that the government obtains a conviction. Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce Miyake, a senior criminal prosecutor, sat through the county inquest into Williams' death.
Retired Saint Louis University professor Steven Puro, who has conducted research on the role of federal civil-rights prosecutions in local police accountability, has said those cases have proved hard to bring and even harder to win because it is difficult to prove an officer willfully intended to violate someone's rights.
Despite the general difficulty in prosecuting these cases, this has to be one of the more winnable.