Revamped inquests

After 18 months of delays, Clark County’s coroner’s inquests were scheduled to begin again today under new rules designed to make the process of examining police use of deadly force more balanced.

But late Wednesday, the state Supreme Court put everything on hold.

The County Commission changed inquest rules in late 2010 following two controversial killings by Las Vegas police. Key changes include having the juries make findings of fact instead of fault, and adding a lawyer – called an ombudsman – to represent the family of the deceased.

The region’s police unions have protested that the revamped format threatens officers’ constitutional rights. The changes have transformed what’s supposed to be a fact-finding hearing into an adversarial proceeding, they argue.

The Las Vegas Police Protective Association has backed two legal challenges against the new inquest procedure. Both were thwarted in lower court, though both decisions are under appeal. The Supreme Court’s move this week likely delays the matter until the legal issues are decided.

Today’s inquest was supposed to concern the death of Eduardo Lopez-Hernandez, a 21-year-old who died in August 2010 during a drawn-out fight and struggle with Nevada Highway Patrol troopers on U.S. Highway 95.

Had the inquest gone on as scheduled, the question was whether the officers involved would even appear. The union recommend they refuse to testify under the Constitution’s protection against self-incrimination.

Perhaps that controversy will be addressed when the high court eventually rules on the new inquest procedures. But let’s hope the revamped format is allowed to go forward. There’s no way to tell whether it’s an improvement until the public has a chance to see how it unfolds.

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