By Mike De Felice
Special to Kitsap Daily News
PORT ORCHARD — Following the finding last week by the county coroner that the death of a Kitsap County Jail inmate involved in an incident with corrections officers was ruled a homicide, Sheriff Gary Simpson pointed out an independent investigation into the death is not yet complete.
The coroner found the cause of Sean Michael Howell’s death on May 15, 2020, was by “restraint asphyxia.”
Howell, 28, was arrested by Bremerton police May 8 in an investigation into the death of his 23-year-old girlfriend, according to the Washington State Patrol. He was transported by police to the Kitsap County Jail and booked for first-degree murder on May 8.
Around 10:30 am the following day, officers observed Howell — housed in a crisis cell — attempting to tamper with the cell’s sprinkler system. Correction officers entered Howell’s cell and attempted to restrain him in order to move him to a different cell. Howell began to violently resist, according to the state patrol, resulting in Howell and a corrections officer being injured and transported to the hospital.
The corrections officer was treated and released. Howell died the morning of May 15 at Harrison Medical Center, now named St. Michael Medical Center.
Simpson, Kitsap County’s sheriff, oversees correction officers in the jail. No corrections officers have been placed on leave following the incident, according to sheriff’s office spokesman Deputy Scott Wilson.
An investigation into Howell’s death is being conducted by the Kitsap Critical Incident Response Team (KCIRT). The Washington State Patrol is the lead investigating agency. No Kitsap County sheriff’s investigators are involved.
“With the definition of homicide, it simply means that the action of another contributed to the death,” said Kitsap County Coroner Jeff Wallis.
“The mission of our office to just determine cause and manner [of death]. We don’t determine criminality. We don’t determine guilty or innocence,” Wallis said.
The coroner also expanded on what restraint asphyxia means while stressing he was not addressing the Howell incident but instead was speaking in general terms.
“Restraint asphyxia is when someone is put into a certain position where it is harder for them to breathe. And that generally is an unintended consequence,” he said.
“When someone is having to be restrained, the goal is to get them where they cannot hurt themselves or anybody else. The whole concept behind restraint asphyxia is sometimes, in order to get them in a position where you can keep them from hurting themselves or anybody else for a period of time, they are in a position where it is difficult for them to breathe,” Wallis said.
Simpson stressed that the investigation is being conducted independently by KCIRT.
“It needs to be reviewed in the totality of the facts and circumstances. The investigation is not yet complete.” Simpson said.
“I have full confidence and faith KCIRT will complete its investigation and provide all the facts involved in this matter,” the sheriff said.
At the conclusion of the investigation, the county prosecutor’s office will conduct a review of the incident, he added.
In addition, the sheriff’s office of professional standards will conduct an investigative review of the policies, procedures and actions taken by the agency, Simpson said.
KCIRT is led by a WSP detective sergeant and includes three other state patrol detectives and detectives from the Port Orchard, Poulsbo and Shelton police departments. Two citizens are also included on the team. A team member acts as a liaison to the deceased’s family to keep them informed of the investigation’s progress.