The testimony from a Las Vegas police detective who said he feared for his life when he fatally shot an unarmed man during a June drug raid convinced seven jurors that the action was justifiable, a Clark County coroner's inquest jury forewoman said Sunday.
The inquest jury took 90 minutes on Saturday to consider two days of witness testimony and physical evidence that contradicted the story of the shooter, Las Vegas police Detective Bryan Yant, before making the call in one of the more controversial shootings involving an officer in recent history.
"His testimony was taken in high regard," said Shannon, 35, the forewoman who asked that her last name be withheld. "His (testimony) was very important to what we were being informed about. He was the only one who witnessed the entire thing."
During the inquest, Yant told jurors that 21-year-old Trevon Cole raised his hands toward him in a shooting stance during the June 11 drug raid at the man's east valley apartment, causing the detective to believe his life was in danger. Prosecutors suggested Saturday that Yant had accidentally pulled the trigger as he kicked open the door to the bathroom where Cole was hiding, but Yant never wavered from his story.
"Unfortunately, he made an aggressive act toward me," Yant testified Saturday. "He made me do my job."
An inquest is a fact-finding process -- not a trial -- in which a majority of jurors decide whether the actions of police are justified, excusable or criminal. An inquest jury's finding is non binding. Prosecutors have discretion over filing charges.
Shannon said the jury never considered Yant's actions criminal because it assumed that "intent" to harm was necessary for an action to be considered criminal . She said that the instructions given to the jury before deliberations didn't define what constitutes a criminal ruling.
The forewoman, who works in the medical field, said each juror considered finding the shooting excusable. A death is excusable if the officer takes a life while "doing a lawful act, without any intention of killing, yet unfortunately kills another," according to the coroner's inquest jury instructions.
The jury ultimately ruled the shooting justified because Yant was adamant that he thought Cole had a gun and maintained that the shooting was not an accident, the forewoman said. A killing is justified if an officer feels his or her life, or the life of another, is in jeopardy.
Andre Lagomarsino, the attorney who represents the Cole family, plans to file a civil rights lawsuit and possibly a civil racketeering lawsuit against the Metropolitan Police Department. He said Sunday that he was angry that no one gave jurors more detailed instructions before they began their deliberations.
"It was presented to them like a multiple-choice question," Lagomarsino told the Review-Journal. "A: justified. B: excusable. C: blank. D: either questions A or B."
He equated the process to a "rubber stamp" for police, a criticism that's also been voiced by the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada.
ACLU attorney Maggie McLetchie stated in a Saturday e-mail that the Clark County district attorney's office needs to prepare jurors better.
The jury never received an adequate explanation about "how they could ever find criminal homicide and, under the language written by the DA, it would be hard to imagine any meaningful limits on a police officer's use of deadly force," she wrote.
According to the coroner's records, 194 inquests have been held since 1976. Only once has a jury ruled the actions of law enforcement to be criminal.
During the inquest, prosecutors questioned Yant about mistakes that were made in the police work that led to the raid. Despite having a copy of Cole's California driver's license complete with a physical description and date of birth, Yant confused Cole with a Trevon Cole from Houston and California, who was seven years older, at least 3 inches shorter and 100 pounds lighter.
The other Trevon Cole had several marijuana possession charges on his record; the Trevon Cole targeted by Yant had none. The false information on the affidavit was used by a judge to authorize a nighttime search warrant raid.
Assistant District Attorney Chris Owens also said that evidence, such as the position of Cole's body, the downward angle of the bullet through his cheek to his neck and testimony from other officers, pointed toward an accidental discharge.
Only one of six officers crammed into the tiny one-bedroom apartment heard Yant give any orders to Cole. The officer who did hear Yant give orders said he didn't hear Yant say anything about Cole's hands.
According to the medical examiner and homicide detective who investigated the case, Cole turned in Yant's direction while crouched over the toilet. Based on how Cole's body was found, the medical examiner found it highly unlikely that Cole took a step toward Yant, as the detective claimed.
Cole was flushing drugs before he was shot by Yant with an AR-15 rifle, prosecutors said.
The jury forewoman said the evidence that Cole was selling drugs did not influence the jury's decision. She did say, however, that testimony from Cole's fiancée, Sequioa Pearce, was not credible.
Pearce, who was nine months pregnant when the couple's apartment was raided, testified that she witnessed the shooting and that Cole had his hands raised when he was shot.
However, the forewoman said several police officers had placed Pearce in the closet of her one-bedroom apartment, a location where she would have been unable to see the bathroom shooting.
Shannon also said although the affidavit containing wrong information painted Cole as a serious and violent drug dealer, testimony from other officers made it clear they are always on "heightened awareness" when executing search warrants.
Shannon said the jury's decision was not an easy one, especially with members of Cole's family in the courtroom.
"It's heartbreaking to go in there knowing the family is wanting one thing, and you're not able to give them what they want."
Immediately after the verdict, Sheriff Doug Gillespie announced that all forced-entry warrants, such as the one conducted by Yant's squad, would be carried out only by SWAT teams until the department reviews its policies.
Gillespie said Yant and Sgt. John Harney, the senior officer at the scene, are both facing internal investigations for possible policy violations related to the raid at Cole's apartment. Yant also must face the department's use of force board, which is standard in all shootings involving officers. This was Yant's third shooting -- two of them fatal -- in his 10 years with the department .
Police Protective Association union President Chris Collins said the inquest jury's decision showed Yant did nothing wrong the night Cole was killed.
"The ruling does not surprise me," Collins said Sunday. "Our officers do a great job out there. It's unfortunate that Mr. Cole lost his life."
Lagomarsino said he's not deterred by the jury's decision. "He (Yant) gets to go back to work and so do I."
Contact reporter Antonio Planas at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4638.