Jul. 30—The family of an unarmed mentally ill man shot and killed by a Spokane County Sheriff's Deputy in 2019 filed a federal civil rights law suit Thursday, alleging the department doesn't train deputies properly on mental health calls.
Ethan Murray, 25, was killed in May 2019 in a wooded area outside the Parkside Apartments at Mirabeau in Spokane Valley. The deputy told investigators he believed Murray had a knife.
Murray's parents, Justine Murray and Mark Jentsch, filed the suit on behalf of their son's estate in the Eastern District of U.S. District Court alleging that Deputy Joseph Wallace violated their son's constitutional rights and that the sheriff's office provides inadequate training for dealing with mental health issues.
Police had contacted Murray six times from May 2 to May 4, the day he died. Each time, officers noted that Murray was exhibiting signs of mental illness.
At about 5:40 p.m. on May 4, a bystander reported Murray was not wearing a shirt and running between kids playing outside, but noted he had not assaulted anyone and didn't appear to be armed.
Murray, who lived in a small homeless camp in the woods nearby, was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder in 2015 and began using methamphetamine around the same time, Justine Murray told The Spokesman Review in 2019.
Wallace responded to the scene, where, according to the Spokane County Prosecutor's office, a woman told him Murray was "threatening the children out here."
The suit alleges that when Wallace and his partner, Deputy Griffin Criswell, contacted Murray, he was showing obvious signs of mental distress.
Wallace even noted in his report that Murray was acting "erratically" and "jittery," with a "frenzied look," according to the complaint.
Murray walked away from the officers and into the undeveloped wooded area nearby. Wallace and Criswell began looking for a way to pursue him, going in opposite directions, according to the suit.
The lawsuit alleges that Wallace took "aggressive actions" by running after Murray alone and without probable cause that Murray had committed a crime.
Wallace eventually caught up to Murray, who he says threatened him and had something in his pocket, according to dispatch records cited in the lawsuit.
That's when Wallace shot Murray five times, killing him.
"You're walking through the park and somebody got afraid, that's really all he did," said Kevin O'Connor, the attorney representing Jentsch.
Deputies do not wear body cameras. The lawsuit alleges Wallace didn't file a statement on the incident until nearly a month later, and only after reviewing dispatch records and audio recording of the incident.
In that statement, Wallace made specific statements about the knife, including that he saw a black handle of a pocket knife and that the blade glistened as Murray pulled it out of his pocket, according to the lawsuit.
During the investigation, a knife was found on the scene but it was later determined to be a knife dropped by a deputy, according to the lawsuit.
"They were looking for any excuse to try and blame the victim," O'Connor said.
When the Spokane County Prosecutor's Office found the shooting justified in October 2019, they said Murray had a pair of black sunglasses in his hand, not a knife.
However, the suit alleges the sunglasses found up the hill from Murray's body did not belong to him and were not in his hand at the time of the shooting.
The lawsuit alleges that Wallace acted "intentionally, knowing, recklessly, and/ or maliciously" in violation of Murray's right to freedom from unreasonable seizure of his person, as guaranteed in the Fourth Amendment.
The lawsuit also alleges that Spokane County Sheriff's Deputies are inadequately trained to recognize mental health symptoms, recognize people in crisis and de-escalate situations involving those people. It's also alleged that the county is liable for its custom of tolerating or encouraging employee attendance at "Warrior Mindset" and "Killology" trainings that they say "teach disregard for constitutional use of force."
A training taught by the founder of the "killology" research group was scheduled to be held in Spokane in October but was meet with significant protest and later cancelled, not in response to community outcry but due to COVID-19 concerns.
"It's a horrible, horrible type of training that most police chiefs across the country have rejected," O'Connor said.
Finally, the suit alleges Spokane County is liable for ruling the shooting justified based on a "reckless and irresponsible investigation."
The suit requests not only damages, but a requirement that the sheriff's office expand its mental health response field capabilities and that officers be required to submit written statements within 24 hours of a deadly force incident.
The Spokane County Sheriff's Office said they do not comment on pending litigation.
Justine Murray and her son's estate are represented by Mazzone Law Firm in Everett and Nelson Langer Engle in Seattle. Neither attorney was available to comment. Jentsch is represented by O'Connor Law Firm in Chicago.
O'Connor handles similar cases across the country and said he believes strongly in Murray's case.
"I don't travel halfway across the country unless I think it's a very good case," he said.
O'Connor hopes to make a point that bad training in general, but especially when it comes to mental health, can be a danger to everyone in the community.
"It's a scary, horrible thing, because it could be me or you or somebody else next," O'Connor said.