New coroner’s inquest system to be tested soon

Authorities will grapple with two challenges as revamped coroner’s inquests into police killings get under way.

New procedures could more than double the time needed to wrap up a case, making it harder to keep pace with the eight to 10 deadly incidents each year requiring inquests.

And a seven-month hiatus in hearings while the system was overhauled has created a backlog of 11 cases that must be handled while new cases crop up.

The coroner and other county officials appear to be in a wait-and-see mode, saying there’s no way to judge the new system or potential problems until some inquests are conducted.

“We won’t really know until we roll this out and see how it goes,” Coroner Michael Murphy said.

The first inquest, using the new rules, probably will happen in early June.

It will examine the fatal shooting by police of Benjamin Hunter Bowman, 22, who held a knife to the throat of a female bartender at PT’s Pub off Sahara Avenue. Bowman threatened to kill the woman during the confrontation with police in November.

Murphy said he chose a straightforward case as a “first run,” so everyone could get a feel for the revamped system before dealing with more complicated cases.

County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani said the system must be tried before it can be assessed.

“Everybody is judging this based on something that hasn’t happened yet,” she said. “Let’s get through the first one and find out what works.”

CHANGING THE PROCESS

Giunchigliani was among the commissioners who approved sweeping changes to the inquest system in January.

Two cases prompted the reforms.

Trevon Cole, 21, a small-time marijuana dealer, was shot by police while unarmed in his apartment. And Erik Scott, 38, was shot outside a Costco by officers who said he attempted to draw a pistol he was carrying.

The most pivotal change was giving the suspect’s bereaved family appointed counsel — known as an ombudsman — at inquest hearings.

Another change is holding two pre-inquest hearings in which the judge, district attorney, ombudsman and police agency meet with representatives of the family and police officers.

Investigative files must be opened to all parties at these meetings.

Other changes include letting the parties determine the scope of questioning for the hearings to focus on the events and replacing a jury verdict with a finding of fact.

The first pre-inquest conference for the Bowman case will be held Monday , Murphy said, adding that the second one must occur within 30 days of that meeting. The inquest will be scheduled sometime after that.

Murphy noted there hasn’t been an inquest since October, creating a backlog.

The goal is to clear the logjam while thoroughly reviewing every case, he said. “They each deserve the full attention of all organizations.”

That task will become tougher.

Under the new rules, cases will take three or four months to complete, versus six to eight weeks under the previous system, Murphy said.

A county code requires an inquest be held whenever someone dies because of a police action, he said. That means the county can’t weed out some police killings to save time and labor, he said.

One way to deal with the more time-consuming load is to do the preliminary work on several cases simultaneously, Murphy said. The hearings still would be done one a time because the county doesn’t have the courtrooms or the staffing to conduct two or three at a time, he said.

Even juggling cases in the early stages will require the district attorney and others to devote more resources, he said.

RESISTANCE to CHANGE

Neither the district attorney nor the police union backed the inquest overhaul, especially the creation of an ombudsman to represent the public and the dead suspect’s family.

The district attorney and union recently tried to push a bill through the Legislature that would have scrapped inquests. The bill died in committee.

Police union leaders have said they will advise officers not to participate in inquests.

District Attorney David Roger made it clear that he planned to scale back, not increase, the legal talent his office has provided to inquests.

Law clerks will replace the seasoned attorney who oversaw inquest cases, Roger said, arguing that is all he can spare after the county tightened his staffing.

He estimated that the hearings will run five or six days, instead of two or three days, because witnesses now will be cross-examined. His office can’t afford to farm out experienced attorneys for that long, he said.

“This is the system we’re stuck with,” he said, adding that his office will do what it can to make it work.

A civil rights attorney contends that using inexperienced law clerks will shortchange an important process.

“It’s unfortunate he’s not using experienced attorneys who are appropriate to the role,” said Maggie McLetchie, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada. “I think the D.A.’s office should take it seriously.”

McLetchie said the inquest reforms were well worth any temporary hassles, such as the backlog in cases. “Hopefully we will be caught up soon,” she said.

Commissioner Steve Sisolak, who initiated the reform effort but later opposed creating an ombudsman, said he was hearing that the new system will be much slower. Still, he is withholding judgment until controversial cases are heard, he said.

“I think you have a better sense after you do a contentious one,” Sisolak said. “Then you’ll know how effective it’s been.”

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

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