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October 1, 2014

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Shooting justified, inquest determines

Decision follows one hour of deliberation, two days of testimony

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HEATHER CORY / HOME NEWS

Officer Alan Olvera demonstrates during the inquest to prosecutor Christopher Laurent how, he said, Deshira Selimaj lunged at police. / Home News

One Officer's Testimony

Officer Patrick Gilmore was among the first to testify in the coroner inquest into the death of Deshira Selimaj. Here is his description of what happened.

Click to enlarge photo

Zyber Selimaj breaks down as the circumstances surrounding the death of his wife, Deshira, are discussed Friday during the coroner's inquest into the killing by a Henderson police officer of the ice cream truck driver and mother of three.

The air conditioning in courtroom 16D is set on a timer, and by 8 p.m. Friday, when Henderson Police Officer Luke Morrison started his coroner’s inquest testimony about the day he shot ice cream truck driver Deshira Selimaj, that timer had long since clicked off, and the room was very, very warm.

Jurors sat slumped. The courtroom smelled stale, and a court bailiff whispered “I’m dying,” in the heat. Morrison, pinking up in the cheeks, spent 45 minutes on the stand.

He told the jury that he was “extremely, extremely scared” in the moments before he shot Selimaj. He said he was certain that if he had not shot the 42-year-old mother of three, she would have stabbed or killed an officer with the knife she was holding. He said Selimaj appeared “disturbed,” beyond the point of being talked down. He said he didn’t know how long he spent trying to get her to drop the knife or calm down — maybe one or two minutes — but it felt so slow. He said he had no choice but to shoot her and that “there was nothing else anybody could have done.”

After about an hour of deliberation late Friday, the seven jurors unanimously agreed. They found the shooting was justified.

Earlier, in hour 12 of the second day of testimony, a juror had thanked Morrison for his time in the Army, his service to the country and his 343 days in Iraq, and asked, “How many Iraqi enemies have you shot?” Morrison responded, “I can’t answer that. I just can’t answer that,” and slightly shook his head. Henderson Justice of the Peace Rodney Burr, presiding over the inquest, said Morrison didn’t have to — that it wasn’t relevant.

The family of Selimaj, her husband, Zyber and his attorney, looked as if they were ready to swallow their tongues to keep from screaming.

• • •

When the officers descended on the Henderson street where Selimaj was shot on Feb. 12, they were responding to a “444” call — officer needs help. It’s an extremely rare call. Officer Mitchell Wilson testified he hadn’t heard more than five such calls in his six years with the department. Officer Anthony Pecorella said officers get those calls “almost never.” Morrison said it was the first time, in his two years with the department, he had ever heard the emergency call.

The that day was that a woman — Deshira Selimaj — was holding her children, Arber, 5, and Alban, 11, hostage, with a knife.

Pecorella, fourth to arrive at the scene, said he found the woman screaming and threatening the lives of other officers, trainee officer Alan Olvera and Officer Jeffrey Wiener.

Pecorella drew his firearm and focused it at Selimaj, and yet after telling her to drop her knife several times, decided to holster his gun and pull out a Taser instead.

“I thought I could end the situation without deadly force,” he said. He told the jury he had been in a similar situation in which another officer had used a Taser to disarm a suspect wielding a knife.

He got within 10 feet of Selimaj and waited for a clear Taser shot. It was the first time he ever shot his Taser in the field, and he missed. One probe flew past her shoulder, and the device didn’t work. Pecorella then said Deshira lunged at him with the knife over her head.

“My hand went to my handgun,” Pecorella said, “and I never got it out.”

By then, officers Christopher Cyr and Morrison were on the scene. At the same time, both officers fired, Cyr with a Taser and Morrison with his handgun. Selimaj went down. Another officer, Wilson, then ran up to the woman. She was belly down on the cement, and he put his boot on her back, near her neck, to hold her down.

Then another officer, Camille Tsitsinakis, then put Selimaj in handcuffs, because the Albanian woman was squirming and trying to sit up, police testified. The officers placed her sitting on the side of the road, and waited for the ambulance to arrive.

She died at the hospital. Her husband was taken to jail and her children were put into county care, but first they gave police recorded statements about what happened. The jury learned all of this on Thursday. It was the Friday testimony of rookie cop Olvera that cast a new light on the officer-involved shooting, though the picture didn’t get much clearer.

It was Olvera, a few months out of the academy, who had decided Zyber should be taken to the hospital. It was Olvera who took the lead, at least for a few moments, when officers were approaching Deshira with their guns drawn.

These were among the handful of absolute facts that floated to the surface of hours of testimony that was, at times, as complicated and confusing as the afternoon of the shooting, to hear police describe it.

Some of the police officers said they didn’t even know Deshira had been shot, even as they stood over her body. Wilson told the jury that officers were just focusing on restraining a combative Deshira, “not really knowing exactly what just occurred.” Wilson even put a call out over the radio stating she hadn’t been shot — only stunned with a Taser. He realized he was wrong when Wiener looked at him with wide eyes and said, “No, she’s shot.”

Then Wilson realized the blood he saw coming from the ice cream lady — who was handcuffed and lying on her back, squinting and asking, “Why did you guys do this to me?” — wasn’t from the knife she was carrying, but the bullet that had flown through her abdomen and exited on the other side.

• • •

The bullet might have cut clean through Selimaj, but it did not fly through the inquest so easily. Forensic pathologist Piotr Kubiczek performed Selimaj’s autopsy and gave the kind of clinical description of his findings that only a doctor who deals with the dead can: Selimaj had three puncture wounds, consistent with the Taser prongs that hit her. She suffered a shot to the abdomen, the bullet exiting through her back. She also had markings on her arm to indicate the bullet grazed her forearm before it entered the stomach.

Kubiczek also explained, however, that the bullet had a downward trajectory through the body. This information set off the Selimaj family attorney and a medical examiner they hired to do a second autopsy. When it was their turn to submit questions to Kubiczek, at least five times, phrased a little differently each time, they attempted to get Kubiczek to acknowledge the same point: If the bullet’s path was downward, didn’t that also mean that Morrison, who stands 5-foot-6, shot downward? Didn’t it mean that Selimaj must have been low to the ground when she was shot?

Kubiczek said he could not answer the question.

So they fired back, submitting more questions: Didn’t the fact that her arm was injured indicate she might have been raising it when she was shot — to block herself or indicate she was ready to comply with police? Ready to drop her knife?

Kubiczek said he could not answer the question.

Assistant District Attorney Christopher Lalli, sensing where this line of questioning was going, interjected with one of his own: Can the path of a bullet really tell you what position a person was in when they were shot?

This one Kubiczek could answer: No.

Selimaj’s attorney, Jim Jimmerson, and Zyber Selimaj looked like people just punched in the gut.

• • •

Seven Henderson officers testified during the second day of the inquest. While each presented a slightly different version of events, their testimony was uniform on one point: how a person wielding a knife and moving toward a police officer should be handled. The answer, the officers agreed, is that they should be shot. They were following policy.

More specifically, Olvera said they should be shot if they’re within 21 feet of an officer or another person, per Henderson Police policy. This meant that the officers’ responses to questions about the knives were mechanical as a police manual.

Wasn’t Deshira a small person? Did she have to be shot? Chief Deputy District Attorney Christopher Laurent asked Olvera.

“She has a deadly weapon sir, it’s still a deadly weapon sir.”

But with so many officers against one woman, couldn’t you have tackled her?

“The size of the weapon doesn’t matter when the person has a deadly weapon.”

Then a juror asked, could you have fought her instead of shot her?

“She has a knife sir, there’s no knowing what she could have done with that knife.”

Laurent then asked Olvera whether or not he is routinely reminded that knives are deadly weapons — “How often is that pounded into your head?” he asked.

“Every single day,” Olvera said. “Every chance they get.”

Officer Wilson testified that he called over the radio for a bean bag rifle, a nonlethal weapon that shoots small bean bags to incapacitate a suspect. The nearest patrol unit with such a rifle, however, was too far away to respond — 6 or 7 miles, Wilson said.

Laurent frequently asked witnesses if their opinion of the shooting would change if the event hadn’t happened as they remembered. When Astrid Bean testified, she said she felt police should have been able to overpower Selimaj without killing her.

Laurent then asked whether she would have felt the same way if she knew Selimaj had a knife. Bean said no.

Laurent then asked if she would have felt the same way if she knew that police were trained not to physically engage people with knives.

Bean said no.

Laurent then asked whether Bean would have felt the same way if her son became a police officer, and encountered someone with a knife.

Bean said no.

It was similar to a line of questioning Laurent ran past Olvera, asking the officer to speculate about what would have happened if Selimaj didn’t have a knife, if Selimaj didn’t hold the knife to herself, or if Selimaj had listened when officers asked her to drop the knife. Olvera gave an answer to each question, though they were, at best, educated guesses.

And it was similar to the question Laurent asked of witnesses who did not see Selimaj with a knife. Laurent asked these witnesses, many of whom were critical of the shooting, whether they would feel differently about the incident if they knew other witnesses actually saw the knife. Some said it would change their opinions, others stuck to their initial opinion — that it was excessive force.

In a back row of the courtroom, Gary Peck seethed. The executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada was outraged to see the prosecutor ask witnesses to respond to hypotheticals, particularly when Laurent asked Bean to reconsider how she would feel if her son were a police officer.

Not only is the question not relevant, Peck said, it was an attempt to get the answer Laurent wanted out of a woman who didn’t want to give it.

“This latest turn towards supposed hypotheticals that are little more than arguments designed to support the ‘official story’ masquerading as ‘questions’ puts the lie to any claim that the D.A.’s office functions as an objective fact-finder during inquest proceedings,” Peck said.

When officer Pecorella testified, Assistant District Attorney Lalli asked the officer what would have happened if Morrison did not shoot Selimaj.

The officer said he could guarantee another officer would have been stabbed.

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