The surge in homicides that began with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has yet to crest in King County, where the number of killings has now exceeded 2020 figures and is on pace to surpass totals from the next two years of heightened violence.
There have been 114 homicides committed in King County as of Friday, when two men were killed in separate Seattle incidents, according to a Seattle Times database. That's five deaths shy of the 119 homicides investigated in both 2021 and 2022.
This year's tally has exceeded the county's 113 homicides in 2020 — a figure that was up from 73 the year before.
Exactly half of this year's killings have occurred in Seattle, which has totaled 57 homicides, including Friday's Belltown and Columbia City killings, according to The Times' database, which is compiled with preliminary information from police, prosecutors and the King County Medical Examiner's Office.
Seattle police investigated 33 homicides in 2019, 53 in 2020, 41 in 2021 and 54 in 2022, according to The Times' data. With more than three months left in the year, it's conceivable the city could break its 1994 record of 69 homicides in a single year.
"It's a concerning trend," Dan Clark, a King County chief criminal deputy prosecutor, said of 2023's homicide count. "We all had anticipated that as we were coming out of the pandemic, some of these disturbing numbers would drop and we haven't seen that so far."
As in recent years, this year's homicides span the gamut of gang-related shootings, domestic-violence killings, violence in homeless encampments, road rage, drug- and prostitution-related killings, and homicides resulting from drug use or mental health crises.
"There's a number of different factors that combine into this elevated homicide rate in our community," Clark said. "That's one of the frustrating parts is that if it was one single reason, we could focus all our energy on addressing that. But it's really varied and so it doesn't lend itself to one solution."
Police departments across the country reported spikes in violent crime during the height of the pandemic. But while many major cities, including Chicago and Los Angeles, saw homicide numbers drop in the first half of 2023 compared with the first six months of 2022, Seattle, New York City and Washington, D.C., were among those that continued to see increased rates of deadly violence, according to a July report from the Council on Criminal Justice.
(The Seattle Police Department counts 60 homicides so far this year, including in its tally the recent death of a man shot in Lake City in 2021, the March discovery of a human skull in a Rainier Beach park and the June death of a baby who died upon being delivered after the baby's mother was fatally shot in Belltown.)
The rise in homicides across King County — which for two decades before the pandemic averaged 70 to 80 homicides a year — has compounded the challenges facing the entire criminal legal system, adding new felony cases to a historic backlog that will take years to resolve.
Before the pandemic, there were about 3,200 open, pending felony cases in King County Superior Court. But that number swelled to 6,000 during the combined 10-month period when criminal jury trials were twice suspended because of COVID-19 protections.
Now, there are anywhere from 4,500 to 4,700 pending felony cases awaiting resolution, a number that no longer includes hundreds of felony drug possession charges that were filed each year before the state Supreme Court struck down Washington's decades-old drug possession statute in 2021.
And while pre-pandemic felony cases were roughly split between serious violent offenses and less serious felonies like burglary and car theft, two-thirds of prosecutors' caseloads now are composed of violent crimes committed against people, according to Clark.
The most serious criminal cases require the most experienced prosecutors and defense attorneys to take them to trial, resulting in weighty caseloads that have led to burnout and resignations from both the county's Prosecuting Attorney's Office and Department of Public Defense.
"The truth is that our region's criminal legal systems are not only at capacity, they are flirting with their breaking points," Anita Khandelwal, Department of Defense director, and Girmay Zahilay, a member of the Metropolitan King County Council, said in a Seattle Times guest editorial earlier this month. "We are amid a public defender attrition crisis. Attorneys qualified to handle the most serious cases are leaving due to unsustainable workloads and this exodus is further straining those who remain."
There are more than 240 pending murder cases alone, nearly double the 125-case average before the pandemic. Last week, for example, seven murder trials were underway between the county's two courthouses in Seattle and Kent. Thirteen other murder cases have been tried so far this year, and 23 were tried last year, Clark said.
"At the beginning of the pandemic, due to court safety issues, we weren't able to try as many cases, and yet more and more cases kept coming in," he said. "So it's a combination of the fact we're dealing with a backlogged court system, plus an increased level of new cases coming into the system."
Clark said the dramatic spike in homicides since 2020 led the Prosecuting Attorney's Office to double the number of attorneys who respond to crime scenes, from eight to 16.
Those attorneys are members of the prosecutor's Most Dangerous Offender Program, known as MDOP, and respond to homicide and violent assault scenes to help police write search warrants and prioritize evidence for forensic testing. They also attend autopsies.
Clark said last week that MDOP attorneys have been called to 123 crime scenes in 2023, compared with 110 by this time last year, which ended with 145 call-outs. In 2021, MDOP's 140 call-outs were down slightly from 2020, when prosecutors were summoned to 146 crime scenes. There were 90 call-outs in 2019; 100 in 2018; 89 in 2017; and 68 in 2016.
In addition to doubling the number of attorneys who respond to crime scenes, other experienced trial attorneys in the prosecutor's office have been tapped to add at least one murder case apiece to their caseloads. The office has also established a training program, including a "trial boot camp," so less-experienced attorneys can develop the skills they'll need to someday lead murder prosecutions, Clark said.
But it's not just the crush of murder cases that has added complexity and volume to the work of Clark's office. Felony traffic cases — including vehicular homicide and vehicular assault — have more than doubled, from 66 before the pandemic to 147 now-pending cases. Open criminal cases involving firearms have also skyrocketed, from 392 in 2019 to 777 as of Sept. 1.
The number of criminal defendants who need competency evaluations and competency restoration at Western State Hospital has also dramatically increased, Clark said.
In January 2019, there were 162 open felony cases with questions about a defendant's competency to stand trial. That number now stands at 338.
"These are cases where people are having severe mental health crises and are not necessarily competent at this point to have their case prosecuted," Clark said. "So we are in the process of determining who needs medication and who needs restoration efforts to get them competent to face their charges."
Such cases require "a tremendous amount of resources" and draw out court proceedings as defendants wait — sometimes for months — to receive services from a backlogged mental health system, Clark said.
Reflecting on the pandemic, Clark doesn't think anyone could have predicted the ongoing effects COVID has had on the criminal legal system.
"I think everyone saw the obvious effects on the medical community and resources, but it is undeniable that nationwide, there has been a spike in violence correlated to the pandemic," he said. "The time to resolution for all of our cases has grown exponentially. It's going to take a long time to see our way out of it."