Seattle driver charged in protester's death pleads not guilty, relatives speak out
Dawit Kelete, 27, pleaded not guilty to charges in connection with an Interstate 5 collision, in which he struck two protesters earlier this month. The incident left one protester dead and another severely injured.
Kelete appeared in court Wednesday morning to be arraigned on felony charges of vehicular homicide and vehicular assault, and reckless driving, which is a gross misdemeanor in Washington state.
During the early hours of July 4, Kelete drove his white Jaguar XJL the wrong way down the interstate's Stewart Street exit ramp in downtown Seattle.
The Washington State Patrol had closed the highway shortly before to accommodate the Black Femme March against racism and police violence. However, Kelete circumvented the closures, and barreled past several vehicles intended to act as a barricade by driving up the shoulder of the highway, according to court documents.
Moments later, he veered sharply to the left, ramming into demonstrators Summer Taylor and Diaz Love. Taylor, 24, died of their injuries later that day. Love, 32, is still recovering at Harborview Medical Center.
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Kelete's defense attorney Francisco Duarte on Wednesday denied that Kelete bears any hostility toward the Black Lives Matter movement.
"We're talking about 27-year-old, young Black male, who found themselves in an unfortunate situation that was opening a tragic event [timeline]," Duarte said.
Kelete was not found to be under the influence of alcohol by officers who responded to the collision, but later told jail staff that he had an untreated drug addiction and was withdrawing from Percocet. Several smoking apparatuses and a substance appearing similar to crystal methamphetamine were recovered from his vehicle.
Test results for samples of both Kelete's blood and the substance found in his car are pending, court documents state.
Duarte motioned for the court to prohibit journalists from photographing or videotaping his client, citing concerns about prejudicial publicity and a fair trial. King County Judge Patrick Oishi denied that motion, following some objections.
"This collision occurred on a public highway," said attorney Karen Koehler, who is representing Summer Taylor's family and Diaz Love. "It resulted in public footage of the two victims being thrown in the air like rag dolls — a vision that we will never be able to take out of our minds. This is in a public forum."
RELATED: Protester Diaz Love speaks out about deadly Seattle car ramming and the journey to recovering
Oishi, however, did grant the defense's request that Kelete be allowed to enter the courtroom without handcuffs. Kelete's next court appearance is scheduled to take place on August 10 at 1 p.m.
Following Kelete's arraignment, dozens gathered in a nearby courtyard for a rally held in support of Summer Taylor and Diaz Love. Taylor's mother spoke out.
"Whether Mr. Kelete intended to strike our child and Diaz Love, or whether it was an accident like he claims, the increasingly regular practice of weaponizing cars is real for [Black Lives Matter] protesters in this city," said Dalia Taylor. "Before their death, Summer had texted me about seeing a car run into a crowd of protesters."
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Dalia also pointed to unscrupulous commentary that emerged following the collision. Many — including a detective with the King County Sheriff's Office — took to social media to blame protesters for the incident, and even gloat and joke about what happened.
"I am less angry [at] a possibly impaired driver ... but I am shocked that the hatred toward this movement, coming from so much of the public, including law enforcement, can possibly defend this," Dalia said, adding that officers' personal resentment toward protesters leaves the door open to incidents like the one that claimed Summer's life.
The Taylor family and several other protesters have filed civil claims against various government agencies, including the Seattle Police Department and Washington State Patrol, citing negligence and use of excessive force amid ongoing civil rights protests.
"We deeply thank you for extending your love to our child," Dalia said to the crowd at Wednesday's rally.