Department boosters would have you believe otherwise, but Saturday’s “justified” ruling by a coroner’s inquest jury in the fatal police shooting of an unarmed man wasn’t good news for Metro.
Sure, it was the most positive outcome possible for the cops. After a two-day hearing with Justice Court Judge Karen Bennett-Haron presiding, narcotics Detective Bryan Yant received an official stamp of approval after taking the life of 21-year-old Trevon Cole on June 11 during the service of a search warrant at the Mirabella Apartments on East Bonanza Road in a case involving a pocketful of marijuana.
After placing great weight on Yant’s testimony that Cole’s “furtive movement” in a darkened bathroom made the detective believe his life was in danger before he fired a single shot from an AR-15 rifle, the jury returned its completely predictable ruling.
In years past, here’s where the sordid story would have ended. Cole’s death would have been added to the long list of questionable police shootings. The killing of one minor pot dealer would be lamented by few and cheered by those who believe he had it coming. The attention of the press and public would be diverted. The circus wagon of the news would roll on.
Not this time.
Not with the police killing of Erik Scott still pending. Not with Sheriff Doug Gillespie in the middle of a re-election bid. And, especially, not given the facts of the Cole case.
To say the shooting was a tragedy of errors understates the decisions that resulted in Cole’s death. Most of this stunning evidence came to light during the inquest, in which Judge Bennett-Haron appropriately allowed more than 300 questions and Chief Deputy District Attorney Christopher Laurent and Assistant District Attorney Chris Owen acted more like prosecutors and less like police cheerleaders. The prosecutors were uncharacteristically skeptical of the conflicting stories.
Evidence showed Yant’s actions from the time he generated the flawed search warrant affidavit until the moment he pulled the trigger were sloppy and unprofessional. He might have feared for his life, but the testimony presented will make others wonder how he has lasted so long in the department.
Traditionally, Metro officers’ statements are consistent. Most of Yant’s fellow officers failed to hear him warn Cole before firing the fatal shot. That might be the least of Yant’s problems.
Yant entered a darkened apartment with a faulty flashlight. This, on its face, sounds incredible. Does anyone, even a Cub Scout, carry a flashlight without checking it? Maybe if he’d performed a basic check of his equipment he wouldn’t have feared for his life and the department wouldn’t face a multimillion-dollar lawsuit.
The inquest generated a long list of questions that portend trouble for the police. Although Yant apparently confused Cole, who had no criminal record, with similarly named suspected drug dealers from Houston and Los Angeles, under oath detective Michael Boone recalled Yant saying that the subject of the search warrant had “no violent priors” and that it “wasn’t a high-risk-oriented warrant.”
Boone also revealed a fact sure to raise questions about the officers’ state of mind that June night. He admitted that one of the undercover detectives had been “robbed at gunpoint that day.”
Despite the result, Cole family attorney Andre Lagomarsino acknowledged the comparative thoroughness of the traditionally one-sided process.
“This inquest, in a lot of respects, went further than most I have followed,” he said. “Even though they (Cole family members) were expecting the result, they were still shocked.”
The greater shock is that, despite the flawed coroner’s inquest process, the ugly truth about the night of June 11 has begun to emerge from the shadows.
By the time the last line of the Trevon Cole story has been written, Saturday’s decision won’t be worth the paper it’s printed on.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.