Ten years after elderly juror froze to death on courthouse steps, his family takes county to court

click to enlarge Ten years after elderly juror froze to death on courthouse steps, his family takes county to court
Young Kwak photo
Spokane County Courthouse

It was just after Thanksgiving 10 years ago when Kay Mita walked out of his Spokane home into a blustery November morning with a jury summons tucked into his jacket pocket. He got into his blue car and drove to the Spokane County Courthouse. It was the first time the 84-year-old Japanese American had been called for jury duty. He was excited, says his son Floyd.

Kay Mita reported to the jury room the morning of Nov. 26, 2007, but did not return after an afternoon lunch break. He didn't come home either, which was unlike him, according to his family. The wind chill dropped to 8 degrees overnight, according to court records.

The following day, Kay Mita was found dead near the front steps of the Spokane County Courthouse, due to what attorneys for his family call a "dangerous breakdown in the system we all depend on for public safety."

In his opening statement to jurors this week, Spokane attorney John Allison laid blame at the feet of Kelli Johnson, who was then a call receiver at Spokane County's Crime Reporting Center.

A major part of lawsuit against the county hinges on Johnson's decision not to forward the missing person report to police dispatch, Allison told the jury, which could have triggered a search. Instead, Johnson sent the report to a supervisor for approval because Kay Mita did not meet factors that would lead police to consider him "at risk."

According to guidelines for Spokane County's emergency call receivers, Johnson said on the stand, risk factors could include developmental disabilities, medical conditions that inhibit self care or impairment from drugs or alcohol.

"You firmly believe that an 84-year-old in below-freezing weather and snow would not be enough to be a special factor to make that elderly person at risk because in your words, 'That's not something to worry about,' correct?"

"Well I don't remember the call, and as for special factors, weather is not a special factor," Johnson answered. "And being 84 years old is not a special factor either."

In her opening statement, Heather Yakely, the attorney for Spokane County, said evidence will show that it's not uncommon for perspective jurors to not return after lunch, as Kay Mita did. She also said that a courthouse worker recognized Kay Mita near the courthouse at the end of the day and asked if he needed help.

"She'll say he appeared fine," Yakely told the jury. "She asked if he needed help, and he said 'No.'

"Mr. Mita was elderly, and the weather was bad," Yakely said. "But evidence will show you why age and weather isn't enough."

Johnson is now a supervisor in Spokane's emergency communications center. After questioning from attorneys, a juror asked Johnson if, after her now 10 years of experience on the job, she would forward the missing person report to dispatch.

"No," she answered.