By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
A federal court denied the motion for a new trial on behalf of the estate of a 66-year-old Issaquah man that suffered a broken neck at the hands of Issaquah Police Department (IPD) when they responded to an alleged domestic dispute call at his home in 2018. In a civil trial in June 2022, a jury decided that officers Michael Lucht and Kylen Whittom did not use excessive force on Wangsheng Leng.
“Obviously, we disagree and are heartbroken by the jury’s verdict in the case; it is a miscarriage of justice,” stated David B. Owens, one of the attorneys for the family. “No words can adequately describe the pain that the death of Wangsheng Leng has caused this family, now even more painful by the result of this trial. The family appreciates privacy in these difficult times.”
Attorneys for the City of Issaquah (also sued by the family) and the IPD did not return a request for comment.
Leng died in hospice care a month after the encounter with police officers. The King County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled the death a homicide due to “blunt force injury to the neck,” which “occurred in circumstances involving the use of physical restraint.”
On Aug. 5, 2018, Issaquah police officers responded to a domestic disturbance call from 911. Liping Yang, Yeng’s wife of 40 years, indicated that once the officers were inside the home, the officers grabbed her husband who was “making nonsense noises” and pulled him toward a couch, where they pushed him face down and attempted to handcuff him, putting their weight on him to hold him down. Leng’s attorneys argued that the officers did not attempt to get an interpreter or confirm with 911 that the apartment they had gone to was the correct one.
Moreover, the family for the estate argues in court papers that the individual that called 911 was a neighbor that frequently called for emergency when there was none. The neighbor had told the 911 operator that there was a loud dispute involving a large Samoan man.
IPD officers argued that Leng was frail and had health problems, unknown to the officers, that contributed to his death. Attorneys for the officers also contended that he was acting erratic and making indecipherable noises. Officer accounts state that Leng was holding onto Yang when she opened the door and then when one of the officers attempted to enter the home, he lunged at the officer. According to court documents, Leng suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.
A language barrier may have been an issue which caused the fatal encounter. The couple had immigrated to Issaquah in 2010 from China. The couple spoke Mandarin; neither spoke English.
The death of Leng exemplifies the harsh reality of a police officer’s job and the accountability that must come with it. State Rep. My-Ly Thai hopes to introduce the Peace Officer Accountability Act to Washington state. According to the lawmaker, it would protect the constitutional rights of citizens while allowing a civil cause of action against peace officers. The legislation would hold police officers accountable in civil actions for alleged misconduct. It would nullify the existing law of qualified immunity for police, which shields them from civil lawsuits arising out of constitutional rights violations.
Wangsheng Leng’s case would not have been affected by the proposed state law as his case was brought in federal court. Representative Thai’s proposed law would affect lawsuits brought in state court.
“[The proposed law] is meant to provide remedy for families to be heard,” said Thai. “It speaks to the reason why I ran, I wanted to hold the power structure in our society accountable.” She added that the bill “is about accountability. We’ve learned that after the initiative process, there are still cases out there who do not follow the law, so we need [legislative bill] 1202 as an accountability bill.”
The American Civil Liberties Union backs the bill stating, “It would incentivize departments to improve training and supervision and deter individual officers from engaging in police misconduct.”
The law is still finding its way through the legislative process in Olympia. It is being opposed by police departments and counties due to the belief that it would cause a glut of lawsuits.
In its motion for a new trial, Leng’s attorneys cited several factors which they determined were prejudicial to their case. This includes a claim that there was an introduction of pro-police bias through direction to potential jurors as the court asked several times whether they could give the officers a fair trial and not to assume they used force too quickly against Leng. Plaintiff attorneys also cite the fact that a jury instruction was not given to advise that Leng’s fragile, physical condition should not be factored into the alleged harm done by the officers (a legal theory known as the “eggshell plaintiff”). The discussion over domestic violence was also believed to have prejudiced the trial verdict as attorneys for the estate claimed that defense attorneys stressed this issue which “unfairly inflamed the jury” according to lawyers.
In its order issued on Sept. 27, Judge Thomas Zilly denied the estate’s motion for a new trial. “[T]he Court is satisfied that plaintiff had a fair trial and that no miscarriage of justice will transire if the verdict is left intact,” stated a portion of the order.
Owens indicated that he could not comment on what might happen next after the court’s denial. An appeal of the jury verdict could be made shortly after the court’s denial for a new trial but the parties have yet to make that determination.
Jason can be reached at email@example.com.