Splitting on most votes, a squabbling 10-person panel on Monday made recommendations for substantial changes to Clark County coroner’s inquests into fatal shootings by police.
The panel voted to eliminate findings of fault in inquests, to make investigative files available to the victim’s family before a hearing and to rename juries “inquest panels.”
The recommendations will be introduced at the Clark County Commission’s Nov. 16 meeting. No public discussion is scheduled at that time. Commissioners will decide in December which, if any, of the proposed changes to adopt.
One member argued that the jury system was one of the inherent flaws in the inquest process.
“Do away with a jury altogether,” said Richard Boulware, an NAACP representative. “It’s conflicting and misleading to the public.”
Another member, however, said that the public needs such a panel to rule on the facts.
“A fact-finding group is part of the public’s role,” said Christopher Blakesley, a law professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Commissioners formed the panel in the wake of two divisive inquests in which juries found police justified in deadly shootings: Trevon Cole, a small-time marijuana dealer who was unarmed when he was killed in his apartment; and Erik Scott, a West Point graduate who was fatally shot outside a Summerlin Costco store.
A polarized mixture of law enforcement officials, legal experts, activists and the coroner are panel members.
On Monday they launched into a nearly hourlong debate about whether to revote on a question that initially drew a 5-5 split: whether attorneys for the victim’s family and police officers should participate in the hearings.
Currently, the prosecutor and juries are the only ones who ask questions in open court. The victim’s family and other interested parties can submit written questions to the judge, who screens them.
The panel decided to recommend that the family have an ombudsman during the inquests while officers would have a union representative.
Panel members reversed a narrow vote to have independent counsel, dubbed a “special examiner,” replace the district attorney in probing the case during the hearing.
Clark County District Attorney David Roger suggested the change, saying his prosecutors are dismayed that the inquests were heading toward a more adversarial process.
Roger seemed slighted that a few county commissioners publicly criticized inquests. He noted that Commissioner Rory Reid called inquests “a kangaroo court” and that Commissioner Steve Sisolak said that jury members ask better questions than the prosecutor.
Commissioners who are displeased should have no qualms about paying extra money to hire an independent attorney to run the hearings, rather than using the prosecutors already on the county’s payroll, Roger said.
“The county commissioners should open up the purse strings and make it happen,” he said.
Panel members did agree to scrap verdicts.
Inquest juries now decide whether a fatal shooting was justified, excusable or criminal. Members voted to replace the verdicts with findings of fact about what happened at a fatal incident.
Renaming the jury was an attempt to emphasize the hearings are fact-finding sessions and not criminal trials.
Roger warned that his office would not prosecute more officers involved in fatal shootings as a substitute for verdicts.
“Don’t expect the district attorney to make that call,” Roger said.
Sheriff Doug Gillespie and Chris Collins, a local police union leader, said Roger’s conduct has never been called into question and so county prosecutors should retain their role.
Collins said some people believe the police have close ties to prosecutors, making the inquests biased toward officers.
“Public perception is driving this thing,” Collins said, referring to the effort to revamp the inquests.
Sisolak, who spearheaded the creation of the panel, thanked members for the time and energy they put in, saying that their work will make an impact but that it won’t satisfy the public.
“No one will be completely happy with this,” he said.
Contact reporter Scott Wyland at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-455-4519.