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Inquest process scrutinized

A nine-member panel jumped into a spirited debate Monday about whether coroner’s inquests should probe more deeply into fatal shootings by police or be scrapped altogether.

Members discussed the merits and flaws of the current inquest system and how the process might be revamped to increase the public’s trust. They delved into controversies such as having prosecutors, who work closely with police, handle inquests, and allowing juries to make rulings in what are supposed to be fact-finding sessions.

It was the first of four weekly meetings that will be held before the panel recommends changes to the Clark County Commission, which formed the panel two weeks ago after back-to-back inquest juries found police were justified in fatally shooting Trevon Cole and Erik Scott in separate incidents.

Metropolitan Police Department Detective Bryan Yant shot Cole, 21, during a June 11 drug raid. Three Las Vegas police officers shot Scott, 38, July 10 outside the Summerlin Costco store.

"The public has lost confidence in the process," said Richard Boulware, a local NAACP representative. "They need to know when people’s lives are taken, it’s done in a responsible manner. It feels like police can do these things and nothing happens."

The panel included Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie, District Attorney David Roger, a police union representative, a professor and lawyers.

Members debated vigorously about whether an attorney for the family of the victim should be allowed to question officers and witnesses in open court, instead of through written questions. Maggie McLetchie, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, argued that a glaring flaw in the current system is that the prosecutor runs the show while the victim’s family sits on the sidelines.

"If the victim’s family is not included, should we have an inquest at all?" McLetchie asked.

She and others noted that in King County, Wash., which includes Seattle, the victim’s family, police and district attorney all have representatives in inquest hearings. Witnesses and police officers are cross-examined on the stand.

Still, many residents in that region are dissatisfied because few findings go against officers, said Gillespie. The purpose of an inquest is to show the public — and more importantly, the victim’s family — why police killed someone, he said.

Chris Collins, the Police Protective Association’s executive director, said two opposing attorneys will become adversarial and ask damning questions to plant seeds of suspicion in the minds of jurors.

Roger said the inquest hearings are not designed to act as a trial. If a police officer’s conduct is found to be criminal, he said, his office will immediately charge the person, rather than wait for an inquest. He said theoretically the inquests could be discontinued and a grand jury could deal directly with cases in which an officer acted criminally.

However, Christopher Blakesley, a Boyd School of Law professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said an inquest allows for greater public scrutiny and shouldn’t be discarded.

Most members agreed that having a jury decide whether a deadly shooting was justified in a fact-finding session confuses the public. A verdict makes the proceeding feel like a quasi-trial, Blakesley said.

Boulware suggested that a jury instead make recommendations for the district attorney to either look deeper into a shooting or close the case. Also, an independent party should handle the inquests, rather than the district attorney, to avoid the appearance that the prosecutor is covering for police, he said.

A few activists criticized the county for appointing no Hispanic panel members. Jose Solorio said a disproportionate number of fatal shootings by police involve Latinos.

"Justice requires we have a seat on the panel," Solorio said.

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

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