Coroner’s inquest system has its first ombudsman

David Wall has worked as a judge, prosecutor and public defender, and now is immersed in a markedly different undertaking.

Wall, 51, is the first appointed counsel, or ombudsman, under the revamped coroner’s inquest system, which examines deaths at the hands of police.

Some would say he is part of history, a key player in the dawning of a more piercing probe into deadly police actions. Lofty phrasing aside, he is among those traversing uncharted ground in a process that remains contentious, even after sweeping changes.

The most pivotal change was creating an ombudsman to ask questions on behalf of dead suspects’ families. Wall belongs to a pool of six to nine ombudsmen who will handle an average of 10 inquests a year.

Police union leaders and civil rights advocates say Clark County is one of just a few places in the country where bereaved families have attorneys represent them at inquests.

Wall said he believes it’s important for a family to have an ombudsman digging deeper for facts. That’s why he signed up to do the job "pro bono" or free of charge, brushing off county reimbursements of up to $5,000, he said.

"It’s another set of eyes looking at the evidence and asking questions that need to be asked," Wall said.

COULD BE ‘GROUNDBREAKING’

In a split vote, county commissioners adopted reforms in January, partly to quell public outrage about questionable inquest findings.

The changes allow officers and families to have legal representation at hearings. They also call for two pre-inquest meetings between affected parties, require all available evidence to be disclosed and replace a jury decision with a finding of fact.

The first inquest under the new rules is scheduled for July 12 at the Regional Justice Center and is expected to go two days. The last inquest was in October.

"It piqued my interest to be part of that … something that could be groundbreaking for the county," Wall said.

Wall is representing the family of Benjamin Hunter Bowman, 22, whom police fatally shot at a PT’s Pub off Sahara Avenue last year.

Police say Bowman held a knife to a female bartender’s throat and threatened to kill her during the confrontation.

Coroner Michael Murphy has said that this case was chosen as a "first run" through the new system because it’s straightforward.

But Wall shakes his head when told the standard version of events. He argues that the incident is not so clear-cut.

He speaks as an ombudsman, not as a former prosecutor or criminal defense lawyer or District Court judge. He retired from the bench in 2010 after eight years and now works as a litigation attorney in a downtown law firm.

Wall has attended two pre-inquest meetings, one on May 9 and one on Friday. What is left now is the actual inquest.

He thinks his well-rounded legal career makes him uniquely qualified to tackle the ombudsman job.

"I could bring something to the process that other lawyers couldn’t," Wall said. "There probably aren’t a whole lot of lawyers who have defended capital cases, prosecuted capital cases and presided over them."

POLICE UNION CRITICAL

But Wall’s years in the district attorney’s office and as a judge didn’t soften a police union leader’s opposition to an ombudsman.

Chris Collins, head of the Las Vegas Police Protective Association, said he worked with Wall on criminal cases years ago and respects him as an attorney.

But Collins contends it doesn’t matter what Wall did in the past.

"He’s been hired to represent the family," Collins said. "He wasn’t hired to be impartial."

Inquests became adversarial the moment county leaders voted to bring in ombudsmen to grill officers on the stand, Collins argued.

Union leaders will continue to tell officers not to participate, he said, adding that this advice came from several attorneys.

Cross-examination impugns the officers and provides fodder for future lawsuits against them, the county and the police department, Collins said.

"These officers, they’re getting treated like criminals," Collins said. "It’s my job to protect the interest of the officers."

Wall agreed that cross-examination can be adversarial.

Sometimes, attorneys can be polite, and other times they must bear down on witnesses who are uncooperative or appear to be lying, he said.

Still, a civil rights attorney argued that union leaders’ fears are unfounded because the officers’ lawyers can counter ombudsmen’s tactics with their own questions and cross-examinations.

The overhauled system might be uncomfortable for police, but it’s "more fair and balanced" and will boost the public’s trust in the efforts to uncover facts about a deadly incident, said Maggie McLetchie, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.

McLetchie and Collins both sat on the panel that discussed and recommended inquest reforms. McLetchie strongly supported giving the families representation during hearings.

"We have a huge problem with public trust in our Police Department," McLetchie said. "I think it’s really important we have accountability and transparency … to ensure the public can have confidence in the officers that work for them."

POLICE BOYCOTT LAMENTED

McLetchie and Wall agreed that it will be harder to gather facts and improve transparency if officers boycott the inquests.

They also agreed that officers who were at the scene but didn’t kill a suspect cannot refuse to testify.

Wall said officers’ testimony won’t be needed for the Bowman inquest. They gave recorded statements after the fatal incident, he said, noting that the shooting happened before officers began refusing to give such statements as part of their boycott on inquests.

Collins said that only one or two future inquests will have recorded statements available.

Although the situation is not ideal, attorneys can work around the uncooperative officers, Wall said. Investigators and forensics teams collect enough evidence, including witness accounts, to illustrate what occurred.

Wall said officers aren’t endearing themselves to the public by resisting the reforms. "It perpetuates the very distrust that led to the changes in the first place," Wall said.

In April, the district attorney and the police union tried to push a bill through the Legislature to scrap inquests. The bill died in committee.

Wall said the inquests serve a vital purpose in answering the public’s questions about why police took a person’s life. The recent overhaul has added tools to accomplish that goal, he said.

"These are public employees," Wall said. "This is an arm of government. Ultimately, they are accountable to the citizens of Clark County."

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

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