Use of ombudsman discussed by inquest review panelists


The nine-member panel reviewing coroner's inquests dug deeper on Monday into changes that could be made to the oft-criticized system for determining whether police are justified in deadly shootings.

Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie suggested giving the victim's family and police officers independent counsel, such as an ombudsman, to represent them at the hearings.

Gillespie also recommended providing available information about the killing to the family before the inquest.

Most panel members agreed with the basic suggestions but quibbled about some specific points.

Currently, the prosecutor and jury are the only ones who ask questions in open court, although interested parties can submit written questions to the judge. And police and the district attorney often won't release evidence and other information about a shooting before an inquest begins.

Phil Kohn, the public defender, agreed with the idea of the family and officers having appointed counsel at the hearings but argued that each should have a separate ombudsman.

"I see a conflict of interest if an ombudsman is representing both the family and police officers," Kohn said.

Several panel members backed his argument.

Clark County Coroner Michael Murphy said he agreed with appointing ombudsmen if there aren't five or six of them at hearings.

"At that point, it gets unwieldy," Murphy said.

But Lisa Mayo-DeRiso, who represents the family of Erik Scott, who was fatally shot by police outside a Summerlin Costco, spoke against appointing counsel.

The families of victims should have their own attorneys so they can vigorously cross-examine witnesses and officers, she said.

Gillespie said those who receive information about a fatal police shooting must be restricted in how they can use it, mainly so they don't leak it to the media.

Panel members also discussed other topics:

■ Police-involved deaths that should trigger an inquest, such as fatal accidents, off-duty shootings and suspects who die while in custody. No consensus was reached.

■ Eliminating the jury verdict options of justified, excusable or criminal. No alternative method was agreed upon.

■ Adding a Hispanic person to the panel for the final meeting. Several members spoke in favor, but a couple were concerned that the move would create a 10-person panel that could split 5-5 on votes.

Clark County commissioners will discuss Wednesday whether to expand the panel.

Also, a King County prosecutor and American Civil Liberties Union attorney in Washington discussed by phone that region's inquest methods.

In King County, the victim's family and police officers have representatives at the hearings, but inquest juries don't decide whether an officer was justified or not in a shooting, said Mark Larsen, a prosecutor for that county.

Citizens review boards also look into fatal police shootings before these incidents go to inquests, Larsen said. He noted it can take a year for an inquest to convene after a shooting.

Two people who were involved in police shootings gave impassioned pleas about taking inquests out of the hands of the district attorney.

One was Evie Oquendo. Police fatally shot her 15-year-old son, Tanner Chamberlain, last year when he held a knife to her throat while having a bipolar episode.

The other was Jim Duensing, whom police stunned and then shot three times. A gun was found in his cargo pants' pocket.

Duensing suggested having the public defender run the inquests instead of the district attorney. He said he sympathized with victims' families about what he described as a skewed process.

"It is a whitewash show trial that would make Joseph Stalin proud," he said.

Contact reporter Scott Wyland at swyland@reviewjournal.com or 702-455-4519.

 

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