Last year, the Clark County Commission considered reforming the badly broken coroner's inquest system that was on display during this month's embarrassing examination of the fatal police shooting of Deshira Selimaj. Unfortunately, the commission rejected proposals for meaningful changes and instead adopted supposed "reforms" that failed to fix anything.
In February, a cadre of Henderson police officers confronted Zyber and Deshira Selimaj after a routine traffic stop during which Mr. Selimaj became agitated and refused to sign a ticket. Mrs. Selimaj later arrived with two of their children, 5-year-old Arber and 11-year-old Alban. Despite the fact that a bevy of officers had secured the area and four of them had surrounded Mrs. Selimaj, 23-year-old officer Luke Morrison fatally shot Mrs. Selimaj at close range while three colleagues at arm's length held their fire.
Police and some other witnesses claimed that Mrs. Selimaj had a knife and lunged at officers, thereby justifying Mr. Morrison's actions. After deliberating briefly, a jury agreed. Unfortunately, the jury was not given the unvarnished facts it needed to make a fully informed decision. It didn't have to be that way if the County Commission had done the right thing.
The commission was asked to allow representatives of the deceased to ask questions in a manner that would enable them to effectively challenge statements by officers and other witnesses who have reason to cast their actions in a light most favorable to themselves and the government, or whose recollections may be otherwise clouded. But the commission refused, and the Selimaj jury was left to rule on the basis of incomplete and stilted information. Like so many inquests before, it was a charade that failed to objectively unearth the facts surrounding an officer-involved homicide.
Indeed, the Selimaj inquest marked a new low in the history of such proceedings. A parade of witnesses offered conflicting testimony about what happened, with more bystanders than not asserting that they saw no knife, and that Mrs. Selimaj never threatened officers or anyone else. These witnesses could not understand how the refusal to sign a ticket had escalated the way it did, nor why so many officers couldn't keep their distance and defuse the situation without using deadly force.
Officers gave testimony that was, at best, confusing. A field training officer testified that he was responding to a call involving a suicidal subject, which could potentially pose serious danger, yet he let an unseasoned trainee take the lead to give him experience. Another officer opined that once police confront a subject and issue commands, the only option is to continue the confrontation and give more orders. No officer ever persuasively explained why there needed to be a confrontation in the first place, and why the police could not maintain the status quo to give things a chance to settle down.
Rather than seriously probe these and other discrepancies and gaps, district attorneys made arguments in the form of questions that seemed designed to rehabilitate the official story told by police. Witnesses who contradicted this story were "asked" if they would change their minds if they knew that others saw the knife, the threat and the necessity of shooting Mrs. Selimaj. If they were unmoved, they were then "asked" if they would change their minds if the officer who fired the shot was their son.
If the process had institutional integrity, the presiding justice of the peace would have objected on the grounds that such questions were leading, argumentative and improper, and he would have instructed the jury to disregard them. The failure to do so, however, is typical in these inquests -- except when representatives of the deceased submit their questions in an already-compromised written form that allows no follow-up. Hearing masters routinely toss these questions, even when they are plainly relevant.
During the Selimaj inquest, for instance, the justice of the peace refused to ask the lead Henderson Police Department detective investigating the shooting scene whether it was true that lawyers for the Selimaj family were not allowed to have an independent investigator examine the evidence presented to the jury. That question goes directly to the credibility of the evidence, and is certainly relevant, given that the detective's neutrality might have been compromised by his ties to the department.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Selimaj inquest involved the presentation of videotaped statements by the two traumatized children who were at the scene of their mother's death. That questioning, without any adult family member or lawyer present, raises serious ethical questions, particularly since their father had already refused to give a statement to the police and the Henderson Police Department knew that the children might be parties to a lawsuit filed against it.
More to the point, the videotape was shown without any effort to contextualize it or to question the officer who interviewed the youngsters. Jurors had no way of knowing what preceded or followed those interviews, what might have been said to the children and whether their statements had any real probative value. All of this would be subject to scrutiny in a real judicial proceeding.
Mrs. Selimaj's death was a tragedy. She was a hard-working, law-abiding mother and wife who left behind a grieving husband and three children. Whatever actually happened on that fateful February day, she deserved better than what the County Commission gave her when it failed to reform a bogus inquest system that serves no one well. Like others who died before her, she got little more than a mortifying exercise in biased storytelling designed to put the best face on the actions of police who may or may not have acted in a justifiable manner.
Perhaps the commission will see that and enact reforms that matter. Absent such changes, we at the ACLU believe it would be best to jettison the inquest system altogether and return to the practice of letting the district attorney's office examine the facts and make decisions about how to proceed when people die at the hands of police.
Transparency alone is not reason enough to preserve the current coroner's inquest scheme. Transparency is, after all, worthless, when what is transparent is transparently bogus.
Gary Peck is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada.