Black man’s death at the hands of a white neighbor in a small-town Missouri trailer park is examined by a jury at a coroner’s inquest, a rarely-used inquest that may or may not guide the prosecutor to determine if a crime has been committed.
Lawyers for Justin King’s family have said a coroner’s inquest will be held to help the Crawford County coroner determine the mode of death.
The six-member coroner’s inquest jury met on Tuesday to consider the death of Justin King in Bourbon, Missouri, a city of 1,600 people 120 kilometers southwest of St. Louis. It is not known when the jury will announce its conclusion.
King, 28, was gunned down in broad daylight outside his neighbor’s home on November 3.
Coroner’s inquests are relatively rare, said Peter Joy, a professor at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis. They are not needed when the cause of death is clearly not a crime, such as a car accident, or when a crime has clearly been committed, such as many fatal shootings.
“That’s only where you have these questions, and that’s a very small number,” Joy said. “With a smaller county, you can go several years before there is a coroner’s inquest.”
The six-member jury hears testimony and assesses other evidence as a trial jury would. The difference: their conclusion has no legal weight. Joy said the county attorney may take the jury’s decision into account when deciding whether to lay charges; may appoint a grand jury for further investigation; or can ignore the survey altogether.
Civil rights leaders gathered outside the Crawford County courthouse on Tuesday, ahead of the inquest, demanding justice for King.
“In Missouri, whether you live here or not, the murder of blacks is not investigated or prosecuted like it is with Caucasians,” said Nimrod Chapel, Jr., president of the NAACP Missouri State Conference, in a statement.
This is the second coroner’s inquest in six months to examine the suspicious death of a young black man.
Derontae Martin was 19 when he died in April at a party at the Madison County home of a man with a history of racist comments and social media posts. Investigators determined that Martin had committed suicide, but the coroner’s inquest jury concluded that he had died by “violence”, not by suicide.
A witness said during the July investigation into Martin’s death that the owner told him he had killed Martin, saying “He didn’t like black people.” But another witness said he saw Martin kill himself.
Despite the decision of the inquest jury, no charges were laid. A phone message left with Madison County District Attorney Dwight Robbins was not immediately returned.
When King died, the Crawford County Sheriff’s Department did not respond to requests for an interview, nor did the prosecutor. But the Sheriff’s Department posted on Facebook shortly after the shooting that “it appears King was shot after forcing entry into a neighbor’s residence where an altercation took place. The owner said he feared for his life and shot King.
Two of King’s neighbors, in interviews with the Associated Press in November, questioned the police account. They said King was a friend of the gunman, a white male in his forties who lived across the street. Neighbor Katie Bosek said when her car didn’t start around 11:30 a.m. on November 3, King and the shooter worked together to connect a loose wire and start the car.
King was killed less than 15 minutes later, Bosek said.
Missouri’s “Castle Doctrine” law permits lethal force against intruders. Joy said that even though the shooter and King knew each other, the shooting could be considered justified if it was determined that King was attempting to break and enter.