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Newest turn in shooting: Carver's knife found shut

By By Steve Miletich, Seattle Times staff reporter
November 9, 2010

Newest turn in shooting: Carver's knife found shut (Nov. 9, 2010)

Newest turn in shooting: Carver's knife found shut

John T. Willaims holding his carving workThe knife that John T. Williams was carrying when he was fatally shot by a Seattle police officer on Aug. 30 was folded in a closed position when it was recovered minutes after the shooting, according to sources familiar with the investigation.

The knife's condition, combined with evidence that Williams was shot in the side, played a role in a preliminary determination by the Police Department's Firearms Review Board and Chief John Diaz that the shooting was not justified, said one law-enforcement source.

The three-inch blade was found closed when another officer picked up the knife, which is documented in evidentiary photographs taken at the scene, the sources said.

Tests were to be conducted to determine whether it's possible the knife might have closed when it hit the ground, sources said. However, a local knife maker said that would be "almost impossible."

Ian Birk, the officer who shot Williams, told the review board the blade was visible when he confronted Williams near downtown Seattle and ordered him three times to drop the knife, according to one source. Williams was shot when he didn't respond, according to police officials.

Whether the knife was open while Williams was carrying it is expected to be a major issue at an upcoming court inquest, in which jurors will hear testimony and determine whether Birk acted properly. The jury's findings can help guide the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office in determining whether criminal charges are warranted.

Birk's attorney, Ted Buck, said Tuesday that he couldn't comment on specific evidence because of rules governing the inquest.

But Buck said, "We expect the evidence that will come forth at the inquest will provide a full explanation for the knife's condition at the time it was recovered."

Buck said the knife has been "thoroughly analyzed," providing an explanation as to its condition and "the way the knife was collected into evidence." He declined to elaborate.

Buck said the evidence will also show there was an "imminent risk associated with Mr. Williams."

Knife a focus of inquest

Birk fatally shot Williams, 50, in the late afternoon of Aug. 30 at the intersection of Boren Avenue and Howell Street. Critics have questioned whether Birk acted too hastily in shooting Williams, a woodcarver and chronic street inebriate.

At a news conference a day after the shooting, Seattle police released a photograph of the knife showing it in the open position.

No description was given at that time about whether it was open when it was recovered, and police officials have since declined to discuss evidence because of the pending inquest. Department officials declined to comment Tuesday on the knife.

A pre-inquest court hearing is scheduled for Nov. 23, when a date for the inquest could be set.

Diaz and the Firearms Review Board will make a final determination on whether the shooting was justified after the inquest is held. It is rare for the department to find a shooting is unjustified.

After the board reached its preliminary finding in early October, Birk was ordered to surrender his gun and badge, according to sources. Birk, 27, who joined the department in July 2008, remains on routine paid leave.

The shooting

Birk shot Williams after he stopped his patrol car at a red light and saw Williams walking and carrying a piece of wood and a small knife that turned out to be used for carving.

Williams, who was a member of Nuu-Chah-Nulth First Nations in British Columbia, did not respond to three commands to drop the knife, according to police officials and an audio recording retrieved from Birk's patrol car.

Williams' family has said he probably didn't hear the officer command him to drop the knife because he was deaf in one ear.

Williams' blood-alcohol level was measured at 0.18, according to an autopsy report obtained by The Seattle Times under a public-disclosure request. A driver with a blood-alcohol content of 0.08 is considered drunk.

The Police Department originally said Williams advanced on Birk but later retreated on that statement.

According to two people familiar with the shooting, who asked not to be identified, less than 15 seconds passed between the time Birk issued his commands and when he fired his gun. Seattle police have said that Birk fired four rounds from a distance of nine to 10 feet.

Williams was struck by four bullets on the right side of his body, indicating he was not facing the officer at the time the shots were fired, according to an attorney for Williams' family.

Williams collapsed on the sidewalk along Howell Street, where he was pronounced dead.

How the knife opens

Lyle Brunckhorst, owner of Bronk's Knifeworks in Bothell, who has been making knives since 1976, on Tuesday examined the police photo of the knife. He said the knife is held closed by a ball indent on the blade.

To open it, a thumb stud on the blade must be pushed to release it from the ball indent, or the blade must be pulled, he said.

"It's not going to close by itself," Brunckhorst said, adding, "It can't close by itself by dropping."

He said the only way to close the blade is to push a liner spring aside.

Brunckhorst said it was "almost impossible" to visualize the blade folding up by itself, unless the knife had a defect such as a poor liner or inadequate spring tension.

Williams' older brother, Harvey Williams, of Vancouver, B.C., said Tuesday the knife his brother was carrying had a notch that had to be pushed to open it.

The shooting led to public protests and questions on why Birk didn't call for backup, or use his patrol car as cover rather than confront Williams in the open, and why he wasn't equipped with a Taser. In response, the Police Department made major changes aimed at bolstering training and improving community relations. The department also said it would equip more officers with Tasers.

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this story.

Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or


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