No coroner's inquest in case of off-duty officer who killed armed man

There will be no inquest into the late-night shooting by an off-duty Henderson police officer that killed the estranged husband of a woman the officer was visiting, county officials said.

The Clark County coroner's office determined that officer Edward Little, 32, was "not acting in an official capacity" when he fatally shot Ruslan Zhgenti, 38. The district attorney's office, which also reviewed the case for a possible coroner's inquest, said criminal charges will not be filed against the two-year officer.

The case highlights a gray area in officer-involved shootings: When is an officer off-duty, and when should an inquest be called?

Coroner's inquests have been held when people die at the hands of off-duty officers at least four times in the past 20 years. And last year, the Metropolitan Police Department ruled off-duty officer Trevor Nettleton's death at the hands of robbery suspects as on-duty.

Henderson police concluded that the Sept. 17 incident involving Little was a "valid self-defense case" and did not recommend charges to the district attorney's office.

Without an inquest, unless the department releases its report into the incident, which it declined to do Monday, public scrutiny might not extend beyond the minimal details provided to date.

Police said Little was visiting Sabina Iskenderova at her home on Via Sarafina Drive, near Seven Hills Drive and Sunridge Heights Parkway, at 1:15 a.m. when her estranged husband arrived, carrying one of two handguns he owned. Although Iskenderova and Zhgenti jointly owned the house, he was living elsewhere at the time, police said.

Little, a North Las Vegas resident, shot and killed Zhgenti with a handgun that was not his duty weapon after Zhgenti "confronted" them with his own gun, police said.

Timur Durdyev, Zhgenti's brother, said the confrontation happened after his brother walked in on the two people in the bedroom.

Durdyev said Monday that he was disappointed but not surprised that no inquest will be held in his brother's death. He said it seemed from the onset that police and the district attorney's office determined that Little was off-duty.

Durdyev thinks the witnesses in the shooting probably conspired against his brother.

"There were only two witnesses, my brother's wife and the cop," Durdyev said. "They were just going to defend each other. They both got busted doing a mutual thing."

Although Zhgenti and Iskenderova were living apart while working out problems in their 12-year marriage, Durdyev said, Zhgenti went in and out of the Seven Hills home. He had a key and often would pick up his young son from the house, the dead man's brother said.

Durdyev said police have told him his brother was shot four times, including once in the head, after he pointed a gun at Little but did not fire at the officer.

The department treated the incident as an off-duty one. Henderson Police Officer's Association President Gary Hargis said Monday that Little was not provided with union representation after the incident because it was deemed he was off-duty.

Coroner Mike Murphy, who has the ability to call for an inquest into any person's death, said he and the district attorney's office found the officer was not under the color of office during the incident.

But at least four times in the past 20 years inquests have been held involving off-duty police. All of the cases involved Las Vegas police officers.

■ In 2003, officer Robert Johnson, who was volunteering at a fireworks stand with his wife, shot an armed robber after the suspect pointed a gun at them. Johnson was not in uniform and didn't identify himself as an officer.

■ In 1999, officer Dennis Devitte shot and killed a man who walked into Mr. D's bar and started shooting patrons, including the officer. Devitte was not in uniform and didn't identify himself as an officer.

■ In 1995, officer Merl Sage intervened in a man raping a woman across the street from Sage's house. The suspect lunged at Sage, and Sage shot twice. Sage didn't identify himself as an officer and was not in uniform.

■ In 1993, multiple officers who had been celebrating a birthday tackled a purse-snatcher outside a bar. The man stopped breathing and died.

Murphy said the difference between those cases and Little's incident was that the officers intervened as police officers.

"In every one of those instances, our belief was ... that they were taking enforcement action even though they were off-duty," Murphy said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, which has been a frequent critic of the handling of police shootings, agreed.

"If somebody walks into a bar and starts shooting, then you react and are acting like a police officer all of a sudden," said Maggie McLetchie, a staff attorney for the organization. "I don't think that's the case here."

But the line blurs when considering Nettleton's death last year. Although the young officer had finished his patrol shift and was in street clothes in his garage when he was shot, the Metropolitan Police Department classified his death as on-duty -- specifically because he used deadly force. Had Nettleton survived, the department said he would have faced scrutiny from the department's use of force board. Had one of the suspects been killed, the department said the case would have gone before an inquest jury.

McLetchie acknowledged there is some confusion over the definition of "off-duty."

She said individual police departments should not be determining whether officers were acting in their official capacity, either; that should be the coroner's decision.

"That's part of what we'd like to change, and we've been trying to push for clarity about what official capacity actually means in the law," she said.

Inquests are a fact-finding process, not a trial. Juries are asked to determine whether a homicide is justified, excusable or criminal. The process, as it now exists, has been heavily criticized as biased in favor of police.

The current coroner's inquest process vaguely requires inquests for any death "caused by an officer," as written in Clark County code. But a panel made up of law enforcement and public advocates this month recommended several changes to the code, including specifically defining "officer-involved death."

They proposed two options for future inquests: requiring them for any officer who was "acting in his official capacity" or requiring them for an officer regardless of his official capacity.

It will be up to Clark County commissioners which path to take. They plan to vote on that and other proposals Dec. 7.

Durdyev said he is considering options, possibly even a lawsuit, to obtain "justice" in his brother's shooting.

"There is going to be some action I'm going to take," he said.

Review-Journal reporter Antonio Planas contributed to this report. Contact reporter Mike Blasky at mblasky@ or 702-383-0283.