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September 30, 2014

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Sheriff says inquest shows Metro’s transparency

Detective says man’s ‘shooting stance’ prompted fatal shot; mistakes acknowledged

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Mona Shield Payne / Special to the Sun

Trevon Cole’s fiancee Sequioa Pearce and Craig Smith react with surprise after hearing the verdict of justifiable homicide during a coroner’s inquest Saturday, Aug. 21, 2010, at the Regional Justice Center.

Updated Sunday, Aug. 22, 2010 | 1:29 a.m.

Inquest Day 2 - Trevon Cole

Craig Smith sinks into his chair and closes his eyes after hearing the shooting of Trevon Cole was justified during a coroner's inquest Saturday, August 21, at the Regional Justice Center. 
Launch slideshow »

Inquest Day 1 - Trevon Cole

Trevon Cole's fiancee Sequioa Pearce testifies about how Cole was holding his hands when he was shot during a coroner's inquest at the Regional Justice Center Friday, August 20, 2010. Cole was shot and killed by Metro Police in June. Launch slideshow »

Clark County Sheriff Douglas Gillespie said the coroner’s inquest that cleared a Metro detective in the shooting death of a man while executing a search warrant is evidence that his department is transparent and trustworthy.

“I think there’s been a lot of scrutiny and criticism of my organization as well as the inquest process,” he said.

“I think today it’s evidenced that we are transparent, that we are willing to admit mistakes, when in fact they are made,” he said. “And I think the officers from my organization that testified today did a very good job of sending that message very clearly to the community.”

After two days of testimony, a seven-member jury ruled Detective Brian Yant justified in June 11 shooting 21-year-old Trevon Bertwane Cole at his Las Vegas apartment.

Police allege that Cole had previously sold drugs to an undercover officer. Yant testified that he shot Cole — who turned out to be unarmed — after he kicked in a bathroom door and saw Cole take what appeared to be “a shooting stance.”

Jurors were shown a picture of Cole’s left hand taken after his death. In it, he is clutching a tube of lip balm.

During their testimony, detectives conceded that mistakes were made in handling the case, including inaccurate criminal history information that was submitted in an affidavit.

Gillespie, meanwhile, said the District Attorney’s Office and the judge carried out the inquest well, and the family should be satisfied that their questions were asked of the witnesses.

“I believe that this was pretty transparent. I believe they got to ask a lot of questions,” he said. “This inquest, I believe, many people thought would take less than a day. But because of the level of questioning that took place, it took two very full days.”

The shooting of Cole already has led to changes within Metro and more will be coming, the sheriff said.

“Just because it’s come back as justified doesn’t mean that we are done reviewing this particular case,” Gillespie said.

“Now that the inquest is over in regards to Officer Yant...we’ll get more in depth into the totality of the review from the internal standpoint. We have a use-of-force board that will be reviewing the facts and circumstances as well.”

The board will determine if Yant will face any disciplinary action, Gillespie said.

And just a few days after the shooting, Metro stopped allowing squads like the narcotics unit involved in Cole’s case to execute the most dangerous search warrants. Any search warrants that require use of force to enter a building will be executed by SWAT officers until a review of Metro policy is complete.

Gillespie said people should consider Metro’s efforts to make improvements before judging the department or his success as sheriff.

“In the tough times, when we have made mistakes, when we need to step forward and adapt, modify and change policy, training and tactics, that’s exactly what we’ve done,” said Gillespie, who is running for re-election. “That’s what we’re going to continue to do as long as I’m sheriff of this organization.”

Still, Cole’s family was disappointed in the verdict.

Attorney Andre Lagomarsino, who represents the Cole family, said he respects the jury’s role, “but I disagree strongly with the verdict...We’re a bit shocked. No, we’re not a bit shocked — we’re extremely shocked.”

Lagomarsino said Cole’s family is still exploring what it will do next and hadn’t decided yet on any legal actions.

After the proceedings concluded, he ushered a group visibly distraught family members away from the throng that had assembled near the 16th floor elevators at the downtown Regional Justice Center.

Family members and his tearful fiancee, Sequioa Pearce, hugged and cried before exiting the courthouse.

Maggie McLetchie, an attorney for the ACLU of Nevada, said the justifiable verdict was “distressing given the evidence we heard, but not surprising.”

The ACLU of Nevada has called for changes in the inquest system to make it more transparent. McLetchie said the system is “inherently flawed” and criticized the fact that there were no African Americans on the jury.

She said it was ironic given that the inquest process evolved after a white officer shot a black North Las Vegas teen in 1969.

“The process is a waste of time and serves as a retroactive rubber ‘OK’ stamp on homicides by Metro,” she said, adding that the involvement of the District Attorney’s Office, which works closely with Metro, makes it impossible for the process to be neutral.

Reached by phone Saturday evening, former state Assemblyman Wendell Williams, a vocal opponent of the inquest system, also expressed disappointment with the verdict.

“It had all the obvious problems — the warrant was done under false pretenses with false information, the judge was misled, there was obviously a case of mistaken identity. I guess it’s just another indication that ever since 1969 the whole process has been a sham,” he said.

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Detective Dan Long, with the aid of Chief Deputy District Attorney Christopher Laurent, right, reviews photos of marijuana from the cell phone of Trevon Cole while testifying Saturday during a coroner's inquest at the Regional Justice Center.

Williams, who leads a group called the League of Action, on Friday led a small group of protestors outside the courthouse and said they planned to protest at the sheriff’s office on Monday.

Coroner Mike Murphy said after the hearing that although his office is responsible for conducting inquests, he did not have a position on any changes to the system.

“As far as addressing whether there should or shouldn’t be changes, that’s not the responsibility of our office. We have very clear guidelines to follow, and we followed them in this case,” he said.

“The responsibility of the office of the coroner is to conduct the inquest per the state and county code. We provided that service to the public as we are directed to do by those statutes,” he said.

The shooting deaths of Cole and of Erik Scott, a 38-year-old Las Vegas man killed by police July 10 outside a Summerlin Costco store, have received attention for the discrepancies in details surrounding them and have prompted calls for change to the inquest system.

An inquest into Scott’s death, which initially was set for Sept. 3, was postponed and has been rescheduled for Sept. 22. The inquest into his death is expected to last at least three days.

In the inquest into Cole’s death, Yant, who has been involved in two other shootings — one of them fatal and also ruled justified — testified he thought he saw a black or silver shiny object in Cole’s right hand.

“I thought he was taking a shooting stance, like a two-handed shooting stance,” Yant said.

Yant said he kicked open the bathroom door and saw Cole over the toilet. Cole then turned toward him and brought his hands together, the detective said.

“His movement alone was enough to make me fear for my life,” regardless of whether Cole had a firearm, Yant said. “He could have had a pen in his hand, I don’t know. I know his movements and his actions.”

A jury of seven, which heard nine hours of testimony Saturday on top of a long day Friday, had to determine whether the shooting was justified, excusable or criminal. The proceedings for a second day were being shown in an overflow room outside the courtroom because of the interest in the case.

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During a coroner's inquest on Saturday, Detective Bryan Yant, right, rises from a squat to demonstrate the actions of Trevon Cole as Assistant District Attorney Chris Owens demonstrates how Yant fired his weapon.

Yant’s statement that Cole turned toward the door didn’t match what a medical examiner said happened, Assistant District Attorney Chris Owens said.

Dr. Lisa Gavin, a medical examiner with the Clark County Coroner’s Office, testified Friday that Cole’s body wouldn’t have been in the position it was if he had fully turned toward the door, as Yant claimed.

Yant insisted during testimony Saturday that Cole did turn his body. “He turned towards me, rotated his body,” he said.

But homicide Detective Dan Long testified after Yant that he believes it was possible for Cole to end up in the position he did even if he had turned all the way toward the bathroom door.

Yant also dismissed the suggestion that he accidently fired his weapon while kicking down the door.

“I didn’t accidentally discharge,” he said.

While on the stand, Yant did admit to making mistakes in preparing the search warrant and investigating Cole’s criminal history.

In an affidavit, Yant said that Cole had an extensive criminal history in California and in Texas. A person by the name of Trevon Cole did have such a history, but that person had a different date of birth and weighed significantly less, prosecutors said.

Yant testified he never was able to confirm information he received from Texas but included it anyway. That was “a mistake on my part,” Yant said.

Yant also said he could have checked fingerprint information from California and Texas, which would have shown the two Coles were not the same person.

But he said that didn’t change the probable cause used to justify the search because Cole had sold marijuana to undercover detectives.

“I feel bad,” Yant testified Saturday. “As a police officer, nobody wants to fire their weapon in the line of duty.”

He said he will have to live with the memory of all three times he has had to fire his weapon, as well as the knowledge that Cole died.

“It’s regrettable and unfortunate that his actions led me to respond in the way I did,” he said.

Click to enlarge photo

A photograph of a marijuana bong seen in Trevon Cole's residence was displayed Saturday during a coroner's inquest at the Regional Justice Center.

In questioning Yant, Owens suggested that the firing of his rifle and the breaching of the door happened simultaneously, perhaps by accident. He pointed to previous testimony from other detectives who were there that indicated they only heard one “boom,” not a “boom” followed by a gunshot.

Owens asked why Yant fired only once.

Yant responded that he was trained to fire once, evaluate the situation, then fire again if necessary.

The day’s final testimony came from Long, who oversaw Metro’s investigation into the shooting.

He testified that officers found marijuana in and near the toilet and elsewhere in Cole’s apartment. He said detectives also found scales and a bong.

A plastic bag found near the toilet also contained marijuana and had been torn into pieces, Long said. The bag could have been in Cole’s hand, which might have been what Yant saw, Long said.

An analysis of Cole’s cell phone records showed he and an undercover narcotics officer had spoken 68 times from April to June, Long said.

Detectives also looked into claims from Cole’s fiancee that she saw Cole with his hands up when he was shot, he said. They determined there was no way for her to see into the bathroom from the closet or from the floor of the bedroom where she was, he said.

A three-minute delay between the time officers requested medical help and the time Sgt. John Harney — the supervisor of the team of narcotics detectives involved in the shooting — reported that an officer fired his weapon was because the officer who requested medical assistance wasn’t aware of the shooting, Long said.

“Several people didn’t hear or understand that what they heard was a gunshot,” he said.

Click to enlarge photo

Narcotics Sgt. John Harney illustrates for the jury movements of Detective Bryan Yant while testifying Saturday, August 21, during a coroner's inquest at the Regional Justice Center. Trevon Cole was shot and killed by Metro Police while serving a search warrant.

Long said Metro cleaned the apartment as a courtesy before the family was allowed back in. “We didn’t want to traumatize anybody,” he said.

Saturday’s first testimony was from Harney, the first detective to enter Cole’s apartment and find Pearce in a closet at the apartment.

Yant’s flashlight wasn’t working at the time he fired the shot. Harney testified Saturday that it probably wasn’t safe to breach a door — as Yant did the bathroom door just before the shooting occurred — if it was pitch black and a person doesn’t have backup.

Conflicting statements have been given as to who was supposed to be Yant’s partner the night the warrant was executed.

Harney testified that immediately after the shooting, Yant described and demonstrated to him what happened in the bathroom when he shot Cole. Harney was in the bedroom when the single shot was fired.

Harney said Yant told him Cole was facing south, away from the door, when Yant entered the bathroom.

But Gavin, the medical examiner, testified on Friday that Cole was facing north, toward the toilet, when he was shot. Prosecutors have said he was flushing marijuana down the toilet as detectives were entering the home. (Coverage of Friday’s inquest proceedings.)

Yant showed Harney the movement he said Cole made, which Chief Deputy District Attorney Christopher Laurent asked him to demonstrate at the inquest. Harney made a movement that showed him thrusting his body forward, with his hands together in front of him and said that was how Yant showed him the movement Cole made toward him.

Harney testified he heard, but did not see, Yant break down the bathroom door, then he heard a single gunshot. He said he couldn’t recall hearing what specific instructions were yelled to Cole between the door opening and the shot but said there was a pause and there were instructions being yelled consistently throughout the event.

Harney said he never heard the word gun used by officers in the apartment.

Laurent asked Harney a number of questions. Among them, he asked about an affidavit for a search warrant signed by Yant that contained incorrect information. Harney said Yant was given incorrect information by a confidential informant.

Harney said although Cole’s background information was incorrect in the affidavit, that didn’t change the fact that Metro had probable cause to search the apartment because an undercover officer had purchased marijuana from him.

One of those purchases was captured on videotape by Langley Productions as part of a reality television series.

Click to enlarge photo

A video, allegedly showing Trevon Cole making an drug sale, is played during a coroner's inquest Friday, August 20, 2010. Cole was shot and killed by Metro Police in June.

The tape was played for the jury on Friday. The Langley crew had planned on filming the execution of the warrant at Cole’s apartment but didn’t because it was busy with footage from another police squad.

Laurent asked Harney if he had instructed a patrol officer stationed outside the apartment, Blane Trip, not to report the shooting over police dispatch radio.

Trip on Friday testified he had been instructed to call dispatch and request medical assistance. A recording of Trip’s conversation over the radio was played in court and he is heard telling the dispatcher that the sergeant would call in on his cell phone with more information.

Harney said he contacted dispatchers about 90 seconds later. He testified that after the shooting and before he called dispatch, he had a brief conversation with Yant in the kitchen of the apartment.

Pearce, Cole’s fiancee, testified Friday that she saw Cole with his hands up before he was shot. Harney, like officers who testified Friday, said the shot occurred before Pearce exited the closet.

Unlike a criminal or civil trial, the inquest process is not adversarial in nature — witnesses aren’t cross-examined, and the District Attorney’s Office is in charge of presenting exhibits and questioning witnesses.

Other attorneys and relatives are permitted to ask questions during the proceedings, but they must be submitted in writing.

Over the two days of testimony, attorneys representing the Cole family, the American Civil Liberties Union and the police officers submitted dozens of questions for the witnesses who took the stand. By the conclusion of proceedings Saturday evening, nearly 1,000 questions had been put on the record.

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