Downtown's most predictable dog-and-pony show


Reporters cringe when they're assigned to cover a coroner's inquest.

Not only is the outcome of each proceeding known before anyone shows up at the courthouse, journalists spend all day in a courtroom with family members of those killed by police. These grieving survivors relive the trauma with no ability to express their emotions or question the process.

The system is so one-sided it could just as well be served by the cops' internal Use of Force Board.

But when decent people representing law enforcement, victims' rights and minority groups met to forge change in the system, I had hope some reform could emerge.

Instead, the public once again was treated to a lengthy process that ultimately was pre-determined.

Nothing the Clark County Commission enacted Tuesday will have a meaningful impact on the flawed inquest process.

With the exception of Commissioners Chris Giunchigliani and Lawrence Weekly, who supported an alternative ordinance that failed, the commission backed new rules that still bar lawyers from questioning witnesses.

The inquisition, what a show.

Currently, if your loved one was shot in the back while handcuffed or shot while holding a threatening basketball, you cannot ask the coroner's representative why he is testifying that the officer's shooting was justified when he should simply be discussing cause of death.

Criminal defense attorney E. Brent Bryson, who represents families of those killed by police, discussed just how stacked the current system is.

In one case, he felt the coroner's representative was, in fact, providing leading testimony that would help the jury get to one of its three possible findings: justified, excusable or criminal.

Bryson had to write his question and hand it to a hearing master. He essentially asked whether the coroner's representative was guiding his testimony to achieve one of those outcomes.

The hearing master asked the question like this: "Do you know what your role here is today?"

Since 1976, when the system began, the police have been found justified in the deaths they caused in all but one case. Clearly, as Las Vegas Police Protective Association Director Chris Collins told the commission, the overwhelming majority of officer-involved shootings are not done "indiscriminately."

Maybe an officer didn't go to work that morning intending to kill a particular suspect, but it doesn't mean pent up frustration (and in some cases, racism) can't, in fact, lead to a culture of "shoot first and ask questions later."

And in my mind, a case like that -- while rare -- still is not the kind of behavior the public should justify.

The current system not only further erodes public trust, but downright fails to protect and serve the community.

Commissioner Tom Collins, who voted with the majority for the "new" rule, suggested at one point that the system works because the jury is clueless and defense attorneys can always proceed with a civil case after the inquest.

Commissioner Bruce Woodbury said he was supporting the "reform" because now any written questions submitted during an inquest will actually be read into the record -- not asked to the jury mind you, but read after the fact. Woodbury called this the check and balance because the majority of hearing masters are elected justices of the peace.

"If the hearing master isn't asking the right questions, he's ultimately accountable," Woodbury said.

Under the existing rules, the family of the person killed by police simply tells the press afterward what they had hoped to learn.

The reporter, having spent upward of six hours listening to the testimony, now has a few minutes to slap down the story that essentially says the officer's shooting was determined to be justified.

Attorney Robert Langford, who has also represented families of people killed by police, suggested the commission ought to get rid of the inquest "if all we care about is making sure there's a headline in tomorrow's paper that says the officer was cleared."

A meaningful system would actually protect the officer, not lead to chaos, as District Attorney David Roger previously suggested.

Imagine a system where the testimony was not entirely guided by the prosecutor, who handles all questioning of witnesses. Imagine the family being able to ask about any discrepancy in fact or why a person reporting on an autopsy is capable of knowing why the officer pulled the trigger.

When the reform group fell to pieces, in part because the attorney general's office walked away from the process, Giunchigliani pressed county staff to offer an alternative to simply rubber-stamping the existing practice. The so-called "ACLU" ordinance would have permitted a family representative to question witnesses. Only Giunchigliani and Weekly supported it. They then opposed the milquetoast version, which the ACLU's Gary Peck said "does nothing."

When he voiced support for the sheriff's ordinance, Woodbury acknowledged that the commission can always revisit the inquest process if this reform doesn't work.

There will undoubtedly be another Swauve Lopez and another cop ruled justified for shooting a handcuffed kid in the back.

There will be more civil lawsuit settlements and more public distrust of a system that engenders none.

There will be more seven-hour, dog-and-pony shows where the family of someone shot by the cops just wants an answer.

Contact Erin Neff at (702) 387-2906, or by e-mail at eneff@reviewjournal.com

 

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