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Death, Lies* and Videotape 

A Spokane case highlights an American dilemma: Who polices the police?

click to enlarge Witness video discredited initial accounts of the Corkery shooting.
  • Witness video discredited initial accounts of the Corkery shooting.

Nothing to see here. Move along. In public relations parlance, Fridays are when you "take out the trash." When you have to share less-than-flattering information, tell the public on Friday, the thinking goes. Most people don't watch Friday night broadcasts or read the Saturday paper. On the weekend, newsrooms are stretched too thin to do follow-up reporting, and come Monday, it seems like old news.

So it raised eyebrows when on Feb. 27 — at 4:41 pm on a Friday — Spokane County issued a news release clearing five Spokane police officers of any wrongdoing in the fatal shooting of Stephen C. Corkery nearly a year ago.

"The evidence shows they acted with good faith and without malice, or evil intent," the decision states. "Therefore, criminal charges will not be pursued."

Edited and approved by new Prosecutor Larry Haskell, the release compiles a number of familiar justifications for why officers opened fire. It lays out Corkery's criminal past, his role in recent armed robberies, his refusal to follow police orders, possible suicidal motives and his possession of what appeared to be a weapon.

Haskell's press release also asserts as truth a sequence of events long known to be false: It indicates that officers negotiated with Corkery while he stood on his porch, but in fact witness video shows that police opened fire less than two seconds after Corkery came outside of his house. (Pressed by reporters, the county issued a corrected news release three days later.)

Police accountability advocates say the timing of the release undermines ongoing efforts to improve transparency in the Spokane criminal justice system. Rick Eichstaedt, executive director of the legal nonprofit Center for Justice, argues that such a quiet announcement downplays a key matter of public trust.

"It's kind of classic strategy that if you want to bury something, you release it on a Friday afternoon," Eichstaedt says. "If this was a justified action, you shouldn't need to hide this."

As police officers' use of deadly force has drawn new scrutiny nationwide, the Corkery shooting illustrates how law enforcement and prosecutors together shape the public narratives surrounding such shootings, legitimizing officer actions and shifting responsibility to the suspects. The case also raises a question that is being asked across America: Are prosecutors, who rely on and work closely with local police officers, able to hold law enforcement accountable? Just last week, a White House task force called for independent investigations, reviewed by outside prosecutors, when police actions result in death.

Haskell, two months into office, has pledged to review all deadly force cases thoroughly and objectively. He says he intends to run an efficient and transparent office, noting that he corrected the Corkery release when made aware of his error.

And he says he did not know of the media black hole on Friday afternoons. He has issued just two news releases, he says, so he is still learning.

"It wasn't intentional," Haskell says. "I would have to be pretty evil to try to do things that way. ... I'm not that media savvy yet, I guess."


click to enlarge Haskell Under Fire: County Prosecutor Larry Haskell has faced ongoing scrutiny since Feb. 26, when the Inlander published a report showing that Haskell's wife had made a series of religious and racially charged comments online. Local TV, blogs and the Associated Press picked up on the story. Then on Tuesday of this week, the Spokesman-Review revealed that Haskell's wife had also posted comments on its own site related to active criminal investigations and cases her husband was personally prosecuting. -
  • Haskell Under Fire: County Prosecutor Larry Haskell has faced ongoing scrutiny since Feb. 26, when the Inlander published a report showing that Haskell's wife had made a series of religious and racially charged comments online. Local TV, blogs and the Associated Press picked up on the story. Then on Tuesday of this week, the Spokesman-Review revealed that Haskell's wife had also posted comments on its own site related to active criminal investigations and cases her husband was personally prosecuting.

Before the methamphetamine and the robberies, Corkery worked in construction. Stephen C. Corkery Sr. describes his son as a thoughtful "kid" — someone who cared deeply for his family and always remembered birthdays. Corkery, 30, grew up in Spokane Valley and attended Shadle Park High School. He did not graduate, but later earned his GED and took several courses at Spokane Falls Community College.

"He was very charismatic," his father says. "Everybody liked him. ... He'd give you the shirt off his back if he thought you needed it."

Corkery gave up construction work after a nail gun accident shattered his knee. His father says he survived on odd jobs, but wanted to pursue culinary training. The younger Corkery loved cooking, often preparing meals for his family. He relished spicy Italian and Mexican dishes most of all.

"And he loved kids," his father says. "When children were around, he just lit up."

But Corkery also racked up a number of nonviolent convictions, stretching back to when he first stole some markers from a Jo-Ann Fabrics at age 13. When he was 17, he took several firearms he found during a party in hopes of pawning them. His father says Corkery took the rap despite others being involved.

Bipolar disorder, his father says, also undermined Corkery's attempts to lead a stable life. While on medication, he did fine. But he would occasionally self-medicate with illegal drugs, and then commit crimes to support his addiction. He eventually faced charges for theft, burglary and trafficking in stolen property.

"He had a sickness," his father admits. "[But] he'd been clean for three years."

The elder Corkery says his son relapsed. Investigators soon tied him to a series of fast-food and coffee-stand robberies in North Spokane. Police say he held up at least 10 locations, masking his face and displaying a handgun. In response to the spree of robberies, the owner of Jitterz Java even encouraged employees to start carrying guns while working.

Detectives tracked Corkery to a home on the 1500 block of West Grace Avenue on March 26, 2014. Records show that officers locked down the home. Using a PA system, they called for Corkery to step out and surrender. Corkery reportedly peered out the front window at surrounding officers and grabbed a pellet gun.

As police cordon off the small, single-story home, officers stop a second man who had just left the house. A newly released Prosecutor's Office decision memo details how the man told authorities that Corkery had just used meth and was "acting irrationally." He tells officers Corkery does not want to go back to prison. Also, he may have a pistol, but the man thinks it's a pellet gun.

Officers take cover behind their police vehicles and call for Corkery to come out. Witnesses say Corkery steps into view behind a screen door as police tell him to surrender. He reportedly stands quietly, scanning the growing police presence.

"[Stephen], this can all be worked out," one officer reportedly yells, "but you need to come out with your hands up!"

An officer reports seeing, through the screen door, Corkery mouth a response: "There's nothing to work out."

Negotiations continue for five to 10 minutes as bystanders gather across the street shortly before 7 pm. One witness starts recording the confrontation with a cellphone. The footage, which appeared online within hours, captures a distant view of Corkery's final moments.

With little warning, Corkery pushes open the screen door and steps onto the front stairs, his arms lightly swinging at his sides and a black pellet gun hanging in his right hand. Officer shout orders to drop the weapon, but Corkery takes about two steps before five officers open fire.

Corkery collapses to the lawn, still clutching the pellet gun. Police records indicate Sgts. Kevin Keller and John Roys, as well as officers Paul Buchmann, Art Dollard and Sean Wheeler, fired at least 14 shots — mostly from .223-caliber tactical rifles.

Spokane Police Chief Frank Straub arrives at the scene later that evening. Straub says he typically receives a briefing from the scene commander and checks the dispatch record of police updates to establish an initial timeline. His says his first priorities include assessing any ongoing safety risks and confirming basic facts.

"You try to get the most information you can," he says.

In a preliminary statement at the scene, Straub tells media that officers continued to negotiate with Corkery after he stepped out of the house. After the cellphone video contradicted that account — showing officers fired less than two seconds after Corkery stepped outside — the department issued a "clarification."

"Sometimes after you make those initial remarks, you obtain other facts," Straub says now. "Once we believed [the video] to be a true and accurate account, then I corrected my statement."

Detectives from the joint Spokane Investigative Regional Response (SIRR) Team — a group of investigators from the Spokane Police, the Spokane County Sheriff's Office and the Washington State Patrol — spent approximately three months investigating the Corkery shooting. The Prosecutor's Office decision memo gives a summary of the statements from four of the five officers. One officer, Buchmann, declined to provide a statement.

"Officer Wheeler said he felt Corkery was target selecting as he glanced around at the different officers in front of the house," the memo states. "Officer Wheeler said he felt Corkery was going to shoot at him or other officers as soon as he had a chance."

Washington, like many states, provides relatively vague legal guidance on when officers may resort to deadly force. State law explains that officers must feel that their life or the life of another faces an imminent threat of severe injury or death.

A justified shooting hinges on whether an officer believes or suspects an imminent threat exists, not whether a threat actually exists. Shootings of unarmed suspects often are ruled as justified because the suspect allegedly made a sudden movement or had an unknown object in their hands.

The Corkery decision memo specifically notes that officers do not have to guess whether a pistol is a pellet gun or a regular handgun.

Other officers who fired on Corkery report mentally weighing his recent drug use, his reluctance to return to prison, his "blank" facial expression and his refusal of police commands. Some expressed concerns Corkery was "prioritizing targets."

"Sgt. Roys knew from his firearm training," the memo states, "that someone can fire their weapon in 3/10 of a second while it takes a minimum of 3/4 seconds for someone to respond. When he saw Corkery's arm begin to rise, he said he fired his pistol two times."

Sociological research stretching back to the 1980s finds that officers recognize that the law protects officers who feel threatened. Researchers suggest officers emphasize that feeling of imminent danger in their accounts of events.

"As information is collected, accounts are fashioned which explain the incident as an instance of understandable and warranted conduct," a 1984 study states. "In the police view, shootings are almost always justified. ... Outsiders, police believe, do not fully understand the context of police work."

Research shows police accounts often portray officer actions as "reactions." The suspect does something to force an officer's hand, shifting intent and blame from officers to the suspects. It creates a stark paradigm of: "It was him or me."

Straub says his officers depend on their extensive training and experience when making split-second decisions and later interpreting events in their statements.

"You have to be in those situations to understand," Straub says. "When you're in a high-stress situation, that tends to alter your perceptions ... [but] they're pretty good at reading people."

The SIRR team announced it had handed over the Corkery investigation in July 2014. Unlike most criminal investigations, SIRR detectives do not recommend potential charges before delivering a case to the Prosecutor's Office for review and a final charging decision.

Since taking over in January, Haskell says he has taken a more active role in the review process of deadly force incidents. He says he reviews the SIRR file, but also has two other attorneys in his office examine the records. They all then compare notes. The office then summarizes evidence and legal analysis into an individualized decision memo, explaining the factors justifying the use of force. The legal memo notes that an officer may not be held criminally liable for deadly force without evidence of "malice" or evil intent to abuse their authority.

"The law is very specific as to what you would have to show at a jury trial to overcome the presumptions," Haskell says. "It is a high threshold."

Considering how difficult proving malice can be, it's perhaps not entirely surprising that law enforcement officers have historically faced few consequences when a citizen died as a result of their actions. Nevertheless, the lack of nationwide data on fatal officer-involved shootings has become a target for critics, including U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

The Feb. 27 news release announcing Haskell's decision to clear the officers cites many of their concerns or perceived threats, primarily the pistol in Corkery's hand. It notes officer attempts to de-escalate the situation and suggests that Corkery intended to be killed, citing farewell notes he wrote to family and friends.

But it omits most mitigating factors, such as Corkery's mental health issues, his reluctance to engage officers and prior reports that he had only a pellet gun.

The release also repeats the debunked sequence of events suggesting that officers continued to negotiate with Corkery after he stepped outside. Haskell says he mistakenly mixed up the timeline when editing the news release.

"I created the impression that there was conversation after he came out on the porch," he says. "That was untrue. That was pointed out to me and I changed it."

Haskell says he released the announcement as soon as it had gone through all of the steps of the review process. He says he did not consider that the timing might imply hidden motives. He emailed the county spokeswoman at 2:59 pm on Friday, Feb. 27, asking her to distribute the news release that day.

That county spokeswoman, Martha Lou Wheatley-Billeter, says an afternoon meeting delayed the announcement until later that Friday, but she acknowledges that the timing could suggest an attempt to minimize news coverage.

"I can certainly understand how it would look," she says. "I used to work in media. I get it."

Many believe the increased availability of video footage, either from bystanders or officer-worn body cameras, will provide for a more informed discussion of police practices. Witness videos have sparked protests and calls for increased scrutiny of recent police shootings in Pasco, Wash., and Los Angeles. Footage of a police shooting in Albuquerque, New Mexico, may have contributed to a rare decision to charge two police officers with murder in January.

Straub says body camera footage will both hold officers accountable and educate the public about what challenges officers encounter. Video can bring new, compelling insight to bear on the causes and conduct surrounding deadly force.

For Spokane, this debate stretches back to the 2006 police-custody death of Otto Zehm, a janitor with mental health issues who became the victim of excessive force and a distorted police narrative blaming him for his own death. That case led to the creation of a civilian police-ombudsman office; however, despite voters passing a proposition calling for independent investigative authority, the ombudsman can only sit in on internal investigations. (Currently, the position is unfilled.)

Liz Moore, director of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane, says local officials should recognize the intense public interest in police accountability and facilitate a candid dialogue on such issues.

"It does raise questions for me," she says of how the Corkery case played out. "It's certainly something our community cares about a lot."

After the Corkery shooting, investigators find three handwritten notes. In one, Corkery takes sole responsibility for the string of recent robberies. In another, he apologizes to his family. The last note asks a close friend to take control of her life and make the most of it.

"Please stop living this life we are leading," he writes. "I'm sorry it had to end like this. I will always be with you in spirit."

Throughout the past year, Corkery's father says, his family has struggled with how police and media handled the shooting. Law enforcement let their assumptions about his son turn to violence. The media then perpetuated those assumptions, "twisting" his son to fit a sensationalized threat.

Truth does not always fit the traditional narratives.

"This was a senseless death of a young man," he says. "He wasn't what they were making him out to be. He had his problems for sure, but he was a really neat guy." ♦

* or totally honest mistakes

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