MISSOULA, Mont. — In most places, the actions of the police officer who fatally shot Kaileb Williams, 20, would have been judged in secret, by an anonymous grand jury weighing criminal charges behind closed doors.
Here, it all played out in the open, during a little-known proceeding called a coroner’s inquest. It unfolded like a miniature trial, with a county coroner presiding in place of a judge, and seven Montana residents questioning witnesses and examining the violent, chaotic path that led Mr. Williams to a deadly standoff with the police on an icy night this past December.
These inquests are relics in America’s justice system, harking back to an era when elected coroners sat in judgment of Western gunslingers like Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. But they are finding new support from some elected officials and civil rights advocates critical of the cloistered grand jury process that cleared police officers in the killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island.
Inquests do not indict officers or judge guilt or innocence, but lawyers here said they could be useful tools in cities inflamed by police killings. They take place before trials — often before any criminal charges are even filed — and offer a forum to air painful details and talk about disputed facts.
In Pasco, Wash., where the shooting death of a Hispanic orchard worker last month resulted in accusations of bias and cover-ups by the police, the coroner recently announced that he would hold an open inquest to head off “another Ferguson.”
“It helps to come to terms with a traumatic event to go through it in a public way,” said Paul MacMahon, an assistant law professor at the London School of Economics who recently wrote about inquests.