In most places, the actions of a police officer who fatally shot Kaileb Williams, 20, would have been judged in secret, by an anonymous grand jury. In Missoula, Mt., says the New York Times, the case played out in the open, during a proceeding called a coroner's inquest. It unfolded like a trial, with a county coroner presiding, and seven residents questioning witnesses and examining the violent, chaotic path that led Williams to a deadly standoff with the police last December. Inquests are relics in the justice system, but they are finding new support from some officials and civil rights advocates critical of the grand jury process that cleared police officers in the killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island.
Inquests do not indict officers or judge guilt or innocence, but lawyers say they could be useful tools in cities inflamed by police killings. They take place before trials — often before any criminal charges are even filed — and offer a forum to air painful details and talk about disputed facts. In Pasco, Wa., where the shooting death of a Hispanic orchard worker last month resulted in accusations of bias and cover-ups by the police, the coroner plans to hold an open inquest to head off “another Ferguson.” “It helps to come to terms with a traumatic event to go through it in a public way,” said Paul MacMahon, an assistant law professor at the London School of Economics.