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County Commission OKs changes to coroner’s inquest process

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Steve Marcus

Assistant District Attorney Chris Owens, left, Clark County Coroner Mike Murphy, center, Chief Deputy District Attorney Christopher Laurent, right, confer during the second day of the coroner’s inquest for Erik Scott at the Regional Justice Center September 23, 2010.

Updated Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2010 | 7:45 p.m.

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Clark County commissioners on Tuesday approved major changes to the coroner’s inquest process that looks into deaths caused by police officers.

Commissioners voted 4-2 to support changes recommended by a 10-member panel that looked into the process last month.

Commissioners Larry Brown and Steve Sisolak voted against the ordinance. Commissioner Tom Collins was absent.

Most of nearly three hours of public testimony on the changes was focused on the addition of an ombudsperson to represent the decedent’s family during the inquest hearings, and Brown and Sisolak said they supported all of the changes except the ombudsperson.

Police officers and their union representatives said they wouldn’t participate in the inquests if the ombudsperson was present because it would make the proceedings adversarial.

Other major parts of the ordinance include changing the term “jury” to “inquest panel,” defining when an inquest should be held and eliminating the verdict.

Brown said he wasn’t comfortable making the process more adversarial and not having officers participate. He said he wished the panel had discussed other ways to make the process more inclusive.

He also said he was open to considering eliminating the district attorney’s office from the process, something District Attorney David Roger suggested in a panel meeting but that was rejected.

Sisolak said he wasn’t comfortable with an ombudsman and wished the panel had taken more time to consider the issue.

But Sisolak moved to create the panel and set the four-meeting timeline so that the commission could act before its members changed after November’s election.

Commissioner Lawrence Weekly questioned Sisolak’s comments, saying that it was time to move forward.

After hearing public comments and nearly an hour of discussion among the commissioners, Commission Chair Rory Reid wrapped things up with a passionate speech supporting the ordinance.

Reid, who leaves the board in a few weeks after losing his gubernatorial bid in November, said he had heard talk about problems with inquests for the eight years he has been a commissioner, and this is the second time the commission has voted on major changes to the process.

He said this was the best opportunity the commission would have to improve the inquest process.

“We need to change this system because if we don’t, we’ll look back and regret that we missed this opportunity,” Reid said.

The inquest process has long had opponents, but two recent police shootings increased public attention on the issue.

A Metro Police officer shot Trevon Cole in his apartment bathroom June 11 while officers executed a search warrant. Cole was unarmed at the time; the officer was found justified in the death by a coroner’s inquest jury Aug. 21.

Erik Scott was shot July 10 outside the Summerlin Costco after store staff called police. Police said Scott pulled a gun on officers, but Scott’s family said he was handing his gun to officers. The three officers were found justified by a coroner’s inquest jury Sept. 28.

After the Scott inquest, county commissioners began considering changes to the inquest process. Commissioners formed a panel to return with suggestions to county commissioners.

The panel was made up of a retired state Supreme Court justice, and a member from the ACLU, the NAACP, Metro Police, the District Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office and the police union. It also included the coroner, a UNLV law professor and a Hispanic community representative.

The committee approved a proposed ordinance Nov. 8, which became the basis of Tuesday’s commission decision.

Commissioners made minor changes to the ordinance to further define the purpose of the inquest. Because of the changes, the ordinance will be on the board’s agenda for the next meeting in two weeks.

Public comments before the vote were mixed, with a number of people supporting the changes and a number of police officers opposing them.

Former state Sen. Joe Neal strongly supported the changes. “I think it goes a long way in solving some of the problems that you find with the coroner’s inquest process,” he said.

Sheriff Doug Gillespie said he also supported the changes. He told commissioners not to worry about finding answers to every question about how things will work under the new system. The coroner and county manager need flexibility to deal with each situation, he said.

Chris Collins, executive director for the Police Protective Association, which represents many of Gillespie’s officers, adamantly argued against the changes. Collins was one of two panel members who voted against the suggested changes.

Rather than make the process more open, the changes would shut it down because officers will not participate, he said. “There is no process if the officers do not participate,” he said.

Collins said he would be happy to see the inquest process done away with, but he could live with all of the changes except the addition of the ombudsperson.

“The police officers in your community have no fear of standing up for what they’ve done, they simply want to be treated fairly and without prejudice,” he said.

Following Collins’ comments, Maggie McLetchie, an ACLU of Nevada attorney, said the ombudsperson was the most important part of the changes. McLetchie was also a member of the panel.

If there is no representation for the family, commissioners should do as Collins said and do away with the inquest process, McLetchie said.

A number of police officers also spoke, many of them indicating that they have participated in inquests in the past and saying they would invoke their Fifth Amendment right and not participate in any inquests that involve a family representative.

The existing process, they said, was not broken and should not be fixed.

Roger, the district attorney, also spoke against the inquest changes.

“I promise you that it will be adversarial,” he said. “Any time you have multiple attorneys in the courtroom, it’s adversarial.”

The existing inquest process is the best in the country, Roger said.

In their discussion, several commissioners said the proposals weren’t perfect, but it was a good starting point.

Sisolak hit on the comments by Collins and McLetchie, saying the only time the ACLU and the police union agreed was when discussing eliminating the inquest altogether.

“Maybe we should end it,” Sisolak said. “Maybe that’s something there is an appetite for.”

But the majority of his colleges disagreed and approved the changes.

Reid pointed out that the commissioners meet every two weeks and if they decide the ombudsperson or something else with the inquest process isn’t working, they can change it again.

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  1. God forbid someone challenge a police officer after they've decided to use deadly force. What a crock Gillespie.