History of Clark County coroner's inquest system


Clark County's inquest system dates to 1969, when a white North Las Vegas police officer shot and killed a black teenager. Calls for a formal review of the shooting from black community leaders were ignored by then-District Attorney George Franklin, who declared the incident justified homicide.

But Dr. Otto Ravenholt, the county's chief medical officer and coroner, was suspicious. Inquests were infrequently used in accidental death cases, but he decided to call for one in the North Las Vegas case, which was ruled justified on a 2-1 vote. After that, officer-involved deaths were routinely sent to inquest.

Inquests are a quasi-judicial process, not a trial. Until last year's reforms, a majority of jurors decided whether the officer's actions fit one of three categories:

■ A killing was justified if an officer felt his or her life or the life of another was in danger.

■ A death was excusable if the officer killed while "doing a lawful act, without any intention of killing, yet unfortunately kills another."

■ Anything else was criminal homicide, but that didn't mean the officer would be charged with a crime. Only the prosecutor has that power.

County commissioners last year eliminated those inquest jury verdicts, leaving jurors to determine only basic facts such as when and where the death occurred.

Seattle is the only other major city where fatal police actions go to inquest, and the process there is significantly different: Jurors determine whether the person killed was a threat to officers, and they don't render verdicts about criminal liability. Afterward, King County prosecutors automatically review the case and make a decision on criminality.

Only once has a Clark County coroner's jury deemed police actions criminally negligent. In 1976, Metropolitan Police Department officers Jerry Weaver and Arthur Summers killed 23-year-old Darryl Taylor during a running gunbattle. Jurors voted 2-1 that the killing wasn't justified, though they made it clear they didn't fault the officers for shooting Taylor. They just thought it was excessive to fire 16 rounds at him in a residential neighborhood.

The district attorney's office presented the case to a grand jury, which declined to indict. That was the last time a district attorney is known to have pursued criminal charges following an inquest.

But in 1990, Nevada Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa wasn't satisfied with an inquest jury's verdict of justified and then-District Attorney Rex Bell's inaction following the death of casino floorman Charles Bush.

Bush, who was not suspected of any crime, was sleeping when three Las Vegas police officers entered his apartment without a warrant. He struggled with the cops and was choked to death. Del Papa charged all three officers with involuntary manslaughter. A trial ended with a hung jury.

 

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