Leila Navidi / FILE PHOTO
Sunday, March 30, 2008 | 2 a.m.
One is certain she saw a knife. Another says he watched an officer put his boot to her neck and hold it there. A third thinks the EMTs who responded to the officer-involved shooting were disturbed by how police handled the body.
In the month and a half since a Henderson police officer fatally shot ice cream lady Deshira Selimaj, private investigators hired by the Albanian woman’s family have found and interviewed 10 witnesses who contradict the police department’s contention that Selimaj attacked a cop and thus had to be shot.
So far, three of these witnesses have been subpoenaed by the district attorney’s office to testify at the coroner’s inquest slated to begin April 10. None of them thinks the shooting was fair.
One man said he was so bothered by what he witnessed that Tuesday afternoon at the corner of Sunridge Heights and Pecos Ridge parkways that he went home and vomited. Then he wrote up a description of exactly what he observed and sealed it in an envelope. He wanted to keep the real story, or his story at least, safe.
Critics say it isn’t. The real story, that is. Not safe because it’s going to be ground through a coroner’s inquest process, which is, as Gary Peck puts it, broken. Peck, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, and a “working group” including local members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, spent a fair part of last year working to change the inquest process, asking for several modifications, the most notable of which was to allow a representative of the deceased to pose questions aloud, in open court.
This request was rejected by the Clark County Commission, as well as the Police Protective Association, a Metro Police officers union that was part of Peck’s working group. So the Selimaj family, and its attorneys, will be required to pose any questions they may have of police or witnesses through the long-standing means — in writing to a hearing master who will screen the questions and determine whether they will be posed at all.
In the end, a jury of seven will be asked to draw one of three conclusions: Was the deadly force that 5-foot-6-inch Henderson police Officer Luke Morrison used justified, excusable or criminal?
Since 1976, when the inquest process was adopted, officers have been cleared in all but one case, and that case was years ago.
If the Selimaj family does not get the verdict it wants — criminal — on April 11, when the two-day inquest is scheduled to end, then perhaps the closure they seek will come from another court case altogether: The Henderson Municipal Court case against Selimaj’s husband, Zyber, on charges of misdemeanor obstruction.
It was Zyber Selimaj’s Feb. 12 run-in with the law that set the wheels that led to his wife’s death in motion. Selimaj, an ice cream truck driver, was pulled over by a police officer for traffic violations. Police say Selimaj became irate, refused to sign the ticket and called his wife to the scene. Deshira Selimaj, at home with two of their three children, got them into her own ice cream truck and drove to where her husband was. When she got out of the truck, Zyber Selimaj says, police had guns drawn.
What happened in the next few minutes has since become the epicenter of a nasty debate.
Police say Deshira Selimaj had a knife and held that knife near one of her boy’s throat. They say they tried to shock her with a Taser, but failed. They say she then attacked an officer, and Morrison, 23, shot her.
Zyber Selimaj and some witnesses say she didn’t have a knife and attacked no one. He says his wife was senselessly shot as he and their children watched.
But everybody agrees on at least one thing: While all of this was happening, Zyber Selimaj became hysterical.
In a declaration of arrest, police report that Selimaj kept telling a police officer “that he had to go to his wife.” The report also notes that an officer had to “physically restrain (Zyber) Selimaj with his hands and arms, pushing Selimaj back on his chest area.”
Selimaj was taken to the Henderson jail while his wife was taken to a hospital, where she died. The county took custody of the children.
Selimaj’s attorney in the misdemeanor case, Mario Lovato, naturally thinks the obstruction charge is nonsense. To make that argument, he subpoenaed the police department March 17 for an extensive number of items, including all records relating to the arrest, the gun that was used in Deshira Selimaj’s shooting, any shell casings and bullet fragments, transcripts of calls to police dispatch, the knife she allegedly held, any written statements taken by police, contact information for all police witnesses, e-mail or internal documents relating to the shooting, any and all photographs of the scene, a list of every officer on the scene with full rank and badge number, and a Henderson Police Department manual.
Police attorneys have filed a motion arguing that these items are not relevant to the obstruction charge. They have also filed a motion to quash Lovato’s numerous witnesses on the grounds that testimony about other things that happened in and around the time Selimaj was arrested — such as his wife’s shooting — are not relevant to the immediate charge.
On Thursday, Henderson Justice Court Judge Mark Stevens set a trial date of July 1, two months after the inquest. Whatever is said during that inquest, Lovato says, may end up in Selimaj’s misdemeanor trial. And if the district attorney’s subpoenas indicate anything, it’s that the list of witnesses in the inquest will overlap that of the misdemeanor case.
Until the inquest, however, none of those witnesses wants to be named. They’re afraid of retaliation, or becoming part of a story that has received considerable media attention.
Henderson police are also keeping their witnesses — people who corroborate their version of events, according to Police Chief Richard Perkins — under wraps. Repeated requests by the Sun to interview those witnesses have gone unanswered. Perkins has previously stated he doesn’t want to try the case in the press.
Of the accounts provided by witnesses to private investigator Hal de Becker of De Becker Investigations, some moments stand out. Parents who watched what happened took particular notice of the Selimaj boys, Alban, 11, and Arber, 5. One mother reported the children were crying, “one of those cries that you know as a mom is a deep, forlorn, sad, horrified kind of cry.”
Another mother said she wanted to step in and grab the children, who she thought were unrelated bystanders, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. She also says she saw Deshira Selimaj with the knife police say they have in evidence, but she never saw her go near the children with it. A third woman said she watched police summon the children away from their mother and frisk the older boy for weapons, an act she found “appalling.”
Another witness, a man, claims he saw an officer put his boot to Selimaj’s neck after she had been shot, as if to get leverage while he removed Taser leads, the sharp prongs that transfer electricity, from the 42-year-old mother’s body.
He “sticks his boot in the back of her neck and holds her down with his boot, he must have held her there a good minute or two and he’s pulling the (Taser leads) out of her,” he said.
This witness and another man both claim they watched police then grab Selimaj and sit her up on a curb, “like a rag doll.” Seeing her propped up led one witness to think Selimaj would be fine, and when he asked an officer at the scene, that officer agreed. The other witness stayed around long enough to watch the EMTs arrive, and says they looked dismayed at the sight of Selimaj sitting up on the curb and immediately laid her back down.
Most of them say Selimaj was on her knees, or sitting, or somehow on the ground when she was shot.
These are the sort of details Peck says he’d like to see come out in court, although he doubts they will. Among his other ideas for inquest reform was the plan to replace the district attorneys who currently question inquest witnesses with lawyers from the attorney general’s office, on the grounds that the district attorneys’ close relationships with police unfairly skew the process. Or, as Peck likes to put it, makes the inquest no more than “the sound of one hand clapping.”
Prosecutors from the district attorney’s office, which works hand-in-hand with police, are still running inquests. Christopher Lalli, assistant district attorney in charge of the criminal division, rejects any accusations that the office is too close with the police to run a fair inquest. The district attorney’s office has an established history of prosecuting police officers when they have committed clear-cut criminal offenses, he said. When there is gray area surrounding a death involving police, they hold an inquest.
Lalli has been provided the names of the 10 witnesses interviewed by de Becker and says because so many people observed the shooting, he plans to call more witnesses to testify at the Selimaj inquest than is typical. What Lalli won’t disclose, however, is just how many witnesses that means.