Police actions in U.S. rarely ruled criminal

Moments after a coroner's inquest jury ruled her fiance's death at the hands of a police officer justified, Sequioa Pearce cradled her infant daughter as she waited for an elevator to whisk her out of the Regional Justice Center.

Was she surprised by the verdict?

She paused. "I hoped for a different outcome."

A Clark County inquest jury hasn't ruled a fatal officer-involved shooting "criminal" in 34 years, a fact that many in the community have used as an indictment against the much-maligned process.

But the truth is that juries in courtrooms across the country are extraordinarily reluctant to find officers' actions in shootings criminal, experts say.

And if the inquest process were changed to become more adversarial, as activists push for, that wouldn't necessarily mean more criminal verdicts.

"It may be that the dearth of findings of criminality is appropriate," said Gary Peck, a longtime critic of the inquest process and police practices.

During last month's inquest into the death of 21-year-old Trevon Cole, the physical evidence and testimony of nearly everyone else at the scene was at odds with what officer Bryan Yant said. His testimony sometimes even contradicted what he told police shortly after he shot Cole.

Yet the jury forewoman later told the Review-Journal that she and others on the seven-member jury found Yant's testimony the most credible, and they deemed his actions justified.

With two inquests scheduled this month, including an unusual three-day session on the July 10 shooting of Erik Scott at a Summerlin Costco store set to begin Sept. 22, Nevada's coroner's inquest system and the use of deadly force by police will again be in the spotlight.

Ever since police officers on the East Coast started carrying guns in the mid-19th century, the public has been outraged by police shootings, said David Klinger, a professor at the University of Missouri, St. Louis.

But rarely are officers charged with a crime when they shoot, and even less often do juries find them guilty. One of the most famous officer-involved shootings ended up just that way, in 1881, when Wyatt Earp and "Doc" Holliday were charged but not convicted in the killings at the OK Corral.

Legislatures and courts tend to create laws that protect officers, experts say. But society as a whole has difficulty calling officers criminals.

"In the mind of the public, there is a strong sentiment that officers don't get up in the morning to commit crimes," said Cal Potter, a Las Vegas attorney who has sued police numerous times.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in its 1989 ruling in Graham v. Connor, determined that officers are allowed to make "reasonable" mistakes when using force.

The language in the decision "gave a tremendous amount of latitude to officers, given the fact they have to make split-second decisions," said Thomas Aveni, executive director of The Police Policy Studies Council, a New Hampshire-based training and consulting company.

But because of the court's "reasonableness" standard, "it's very difficult to charge an officer ... and they're even more difficult to convict because they're very easy to defend," Aveni said.

Even apparently open-and-shut cases against officers are difficult for prosecutors.

In January 2006, a San Bernardino County, Calif., sheriff's deputy shot an off-duty Air Force military policeman who was complying with the deputy's orders. The military policeman was lying on the ground when the deputy, Ivory J. Webb Jr., yelled repeatedly for him to "get up." When the military policeman complied, Webb shot him three times.

The shooting, caught on videotape by a bystander, sparked outrage in Southern California and brought felony charges against the deputy. Yet a jury later found Webb not guilty of attempted voluntary manslaughter.

An exasperated deputy district attorney later told the Riverside newspaper, "The only thing we can take away from this is the question: Is it impossible to convict a police officer?"

But should it be easier to convict officers for shootings? Experts say no.

"I too worry a little about the long-term effects about making it easier to prosecute cops," said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School Los Angeles. "A lot of them will just go find another job."

Nevada's coroner's inquest, officially deemed a "fact-finding" process, cannot end with any criminal charges against anyone. The inquest jury can reach three conclusions regarding an officer-involved death: justified, excusable or criminal. The attorney general's office, through an agreement with the Clark County District Attorney's Office, can choose whether to press charges without regard for the inquest jury's verdict.

Advocates such as Peck say the process should at least be opened up to allow a representative of the deceased's family to cross-examine the officer, but law enforcement representatives say that would prompt officers to refuse to testify.

But criticizing the process for the lack of "criminal" verdicts is attacking it for the wrong reasons, say Peck and Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada. They say they want a fair process, regardless of the verdict.

Lichtenstein said the "criminal" option should be removed from the process.

"I'm not sure the coroner's inquest process is really the place to decide where a cop says, 'I'm going to go out and kill somebody,' " he said.

Instead, the jury should have just two options -- justified and unjustified, he said.

There are no plans to overhaul the process, but Lichtenstein said he believes it inevitably will be changed.

"I think that within the community and even within government, there's a growing realization that ... the current system that we have isn't really working for the public or even the police, for that matter," he said.

Contact reporter Lawrence Mower at lmower@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0440.