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Family files wrongful death lawsuit against city of Lynnwood

LYNNWOOD, Wash., July 15, 2023—The family of Tirhas Berhand Tesfatsion, a 47-year-old woman was found dead at the Lynnwood Jail on July 13, 2021, filed suit against the City of Lynnwood and five staff members on Wednesday, July 12, in United States District Court in Seattle alleging that jail staff negligence contributed to her suicide.

Tirhas Berhand Tesfatsion

The death of Tesfatsion, leading to an outside investigation and protest by a defund the police movement. This was the first in-custody death at Lynnwood Jail since its opening in 1994.

On July 28, 2021, the state Attorney General’s Office said that it does not have the authority to investigate Tesfatsion’s death and that it was up to the Snohomish County Prosecutor’s Office to pursue the case. The Snohomish County Prosecutor’s Office, in July of that year, declined to pursue criminal charges.

According to Lynnwood Police Department Policy #C602, inmate safety checks are required at least once every 60 minutes. The policy allows for camera monitoring to supplement safety checks but not replace the need for direct visual observation.

Tesfatsion was arrested on July 12 for a DUI misdemeanor and had prior drug or alcohol arrests.

According to the Kirkland Police investigation report, at 1:51 p.m. July 13, 2021, video footage shows Tesfatsion tying her jail uniform into a ligature and testing it around her neck as she sat on the bottom bunk. Tesfatsion then tested the ligature, unsuccessfully, several times. She then moved to the next set of bunk beds and climbed the ladder to the top bunk where she appeared to attach the ligature to the railing before stepping back down.

Tesfatsion had a blanket draped over her body like a cape during this time, partially or fully obscuring the ligature from camera view.

At 2 p.m. video footage shows Tesfatsion taking a plastic chair into the bathroom area with the ligature attached to her neck but partially obscured by the blanket draped over her.

According to the report, her jail uniform was placed over the blue partition between the sink and toilet while standing on something. Her head lowered and then moved slightly. Through shadows cast upon the wall looking at the cell 7 wall camera, no movement can be seen just after 2:02 p.m. She did not re-emerge from the bathroom.

Around 3:01 p.m. Officer Szalda entered Tesfatsion’s cell intending to administer medications prescribed by Dr. Scott McAfree of the Lynnwood Jail’s nursing station. However, he found Tesfatsion unresponsive near the shower and toilet area of her cell. According to the Snohomish County Medical Examiner, Tesfatsion’s cause of death was declared a suicide.

Tirhas Tesfatsion
Members of Tirhas Tesfatsion’s family and supporters bring awareness to her death in the Lynnwood Jail on July 13, 2021. Source: Lynnwood Times.

Tesfatsion’s death sparked an emotional protest at Lynnwood City Hall on July 26, 2021, organized by the Seattle-based group Decriminalize Seattle who describe themselves as a “coalition that builds power in Seattle to invest in pro-community, pro-people initiatives and divest from policing and the criminal legal system.”

Nearly 100 met outside City Hall, which included Tesfatsion’s sister and niece, expressing concerns over in-custody safety and suspicions surrounding the cause of death before attending an emotional three-hour city council meeting.

Tirhas Tesfatsion
Members of Tirhas Tesfatsion’s family and supporters bring awareness to her death in the Lynnwood Jail on July 13, 2021. Source: Lynnwood Times.

After the flag salute, then-Council President George Hurst moved that the agenda be changed to accommodate the 100 protestors outside. The council immediately proceeded to the approval of previous meeting minutes after the motion until the distant chant of “no justice, no peace” grew louder as the protesters entered the building.

Dozens of individuals donning various apparel with signs reading “Justice for Tirhas,” “Defund the Police,” “No good cops in a racist system,” and “Say her name,” attended the meeting in response to the death of Ms. Tesfatsion. The protestors chanted her name after they entered the building. 

Tirhas Tesfatsion

Sporadic shouts of “Black lives matter” and “You murdered her” echoed through the quieting room. As the room began to settle once again, Mayor Nicola Smith began to explain the situation.

“Our Lynnwood police command staff immediately called for an outside investigation which was conducted by Kirkland police. They are still wrapping up their full investigation, which will take a few more days. We’ve been informed by the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s office, that the official manner of death was the result of suicide,” Mayor Smith explained.

Tirhas Tesfatsion
Mayor Nicola Smith listening to members of the family on July 26, 2021. Source: Lynnwood Times.

After Mayor Smith mentioned the suicide, the protestors began chanting, “They lie, they lie, we know it wasn’t suicide.”

Public comment began and Civil Rights Attorney James Bible, whose calm voice and professional demeanor seemed to settle the crowd, addressed the council, saying, “I want to be clear, the family reached out to the community, and the community responded.” 

Tirhas Tesfatsion
Civil Rights Attorney James Bible with members of Tirhas Tesfatsion’s family and supporters bring awareness to her death in the Lynnwood Jail on July 13, 2021. Source: Lynnwood Times.

Bible continued, “We do agree that this is a tragic incident, and we will say that this is something that never ever should have happened, especially in our own city because she didn’t die outside on the street or in her own home. She died in the care and custody of the Lynnwood City jail… My position ultimately is that you should get out of the incarceration business and into the helping communities business.”

Bible and others express upset with not only the death of Ms. Tesfatsion but also the incarceration system as a whole.

“We’re looking to you for leadership in a different sort of way and it would be a bold move to say we need to go back to the drawing table, and we need to figure out something better for these human beings and make July 13th matter differently…to infuse humanity into our systems. Don’t let her death be in vain. Don’t let those last desperate moments of a sad hurt person be in vain.”

Tirhas Tesfatsion

Ms. Tesfatsion’s sister, the first of the family to speak at the meeting, expressed questions revolving around her sister’s death that she said remain unanswered. 

She continued, “We want answers…You guys failed to protect her, and then you guys murdered her and said she was suicid[al]. We are confused…It’s not about Black lives—it’s about life that was taken away. That’s not fair.” 

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org. If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, seek out a local narcotics anonymous group at https://everettna.org/.

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