For the third time in two weeks, a coroner’s jury in Las Vegas has cleared law enforcement officers of wrongdoing in connection with a death related to their actions.
On Friday, jurors ruled unanimously that Las Vegas police officers Mark Loeffler and Christopher Dennis acted justifiably in March when they fatally shot a 37-year-old man.
Juror Nancy Nichols, 23, said she agreed with the officers, who testified that they had no other choice but to shoot Daechull Chung when he attacked them with two knives.
“I think they handled everything very well,” said Nichols, the daughter of a retired police officer. “I really think they did exactly what was needed to be done.”
Chung’s wife, Fay, attended the inquest with attorney James Oronoz, who is representing the man’s family.
“We’re digging into the facts, and we’re seeing where they take us,” Oronoz said. “If at some point a lawsuit is justified, we will file one.”
He expressed his concern that Las Vegas police have had a pattern of shootings that “are somewhat questionable.”
Two recent inquests in Las Vegas have involved other law enforcement agencies.
On April 11, a coroner’s jury ruled that a Henderson police officer had acted justifiably when he shot and killed ice cream truck driver Deshira Selimaj, a mother of three. The officer said he fired at Selimaj after she raised a knife in the direction of another officer.
A week after that verdict, a coroner’s jury declared the death of Ryan Rich excusable. Rich, who was completing his medical residency in Las Vegas, died after a Nevada Highway Patrol trooper used a stun gun on him multiple times.
Coroner’s juries have the option of declaring officer-related deaths justifiable, excusable or criminal. Their verdicts are not binding on the district attorney’s office.
Oronoz said he was surprised to learn Friday that Las Vegas police had handled calls involving Daechull Chung in the past.
Homicide Detective Dolphis Boucher testified that police had responded to six other calls involving the man, who had a history of mental illness, since 2003.
Fay Chung said that she knew her husband was schizophrenic but that she had never seen him behave violently, and that she knew nothing about a prior incident involving a knife.
She said she was working as a dealer when police were called to their neighborhood, near Maryland Parkway and Harmon Avenue, around 3 a.m. on March 16.
Brent Fisher said he had just returned home from work when a man, dressed in a T-shirt and underwear, approached him with his hands behind his back.
Fisher said he retreated behind the security door of his apartment, on Living Desert Drive, before talking to the man, who asked him if he knew someone named Denise. Fisher said he did not.
“He seemed kind of spacey a little bit, like maybe he was under the influence,” the witness testified.
No alcohol or illegal drugs were found in Daechull Chung’s system.
Fisher said police responded shortly after he called 911. He said the man went around the corner and out of sight after an officer arrived, and Fisher recalled hearing the officer repeatedly command the man to “drop it” before the sound of gunshots rang out.
Brenda Griffin, who lived nearby, was the only person other than the two officers who witnessed the shooting. She said she saw nothing in the man’s hands as she watched the incident through a window and did not see him attack the officers.
Nichols said jurors discounted Griffin’s testimony because evidence had convinced them that she could not have seen the incident well.
Loeffler, who joined the Metropolitan Police Department two years ago after a 22-year Navy career, said he arrived on the scene first and exited his vehicle as soon as he spotted Chung.
“I saw shiny objects behind his back,” the officer testified.
Loeffler, who suspected the objects were knives, planned to wait for backup but said Chung turned and started running toward him.
The officer said he walked backward, drew his firearm and reported the emergency situation to dispatch. He said he focused on the man’s head and left hand, which was wielding a knife.
Loeffler recalled commanding the man repeatedly to “drop the knives,” but the man continued closing in on him. The officer said he fired one round when the man came within 5 feet of him.
“It was either him stab me or me fire my weapon, and that’s what I chose to do,” Loeffler told the jury.
He said he then heard another officer order the man to drop the knife, which remained in his left hand.
The man began to stand up again and was in a “squatting” or “crouching” position when Dennis fired two rounds at him, Loeffler said.
Loeffler said he did not recall the man making any movements toward Dennis.
Dennis, who joined the department about a year ago and completed his field training in November, said he arrived at the scene to see Loeffler running backward from the suspect.
As Dennis exited his vehicle and drew his firearm, Loeffler shot Chung. Dennis said he approached within 5 feet and told the suspect to drop his knife, but the man “popped back up” and lunged at him with the knife.
“At that point, I felt like my life was in danger,” Dennis said. He then fired two shots.
Nichols said the suspect’s proximity to the officers, combined with his refusal to drop his weapons, played an important role in the jury’s deliberations.
“He had an opportunity to actually harm the police officers,” she said.
Investigators found two kitchen knives, each with blades of about 5 inches, at the scene.
An emergency medical technician testified that Chung was still gripping a knife when he arrived at the scene to treat him after the shooting.
Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-8135.