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July 31, 2015

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Coroner’s inquest review panel weighs scrapping jury, verdict

In what was the highest attended Coroner’s Inquest Review Panel since the first meeting Oct. 18, members of the panel seemed to agree that, like having a verdict, having a jury is not necessary for a coroner’s inquest.

Last week, members of the panel reacted positively to the idea of not having a verdict during the inquest process. On Monday night, that idea was reinforced but with it came a discussion on what exactly the jury would find and if there would even be a need for a jury.

Some panel members thought that without a verdict, a jury or “panel” would exist to seek out facts specific to each case, referred to as interrogatories. Some examples of possible interrogatories included, “Who died?” and “Did they die at the hands of police?” Some said the process was essentially pointless since the decision to prosecute is ultimately in the hands of the district attorney.

“Why are we having a jury decide if they died at the hands of police if that’s why they’re here in the first place? I’m not sure if the panel adds anything other than confusion as a perceived voice of the public when they don’t actually get to say anything or decide anything,” Richard Boulware of the NAACP said.

Chairman and UNLV professor Christopher Blakesley, Margaret McLetchie of the ACLU and Chris Collins, executive director for the Police Protective Association, agreed with Boulware.

“I think the jury should go,” Collins said. “Originally I said that they should have a jury so that the public did have someone there to ask questions on their behalf. But maybe that is the confusing part of the system.”

Members of the panel also discussed having an attorney for the family of the deceased present during a pre-inquest conference.

The conference would have a presiding officer – most likely an active judge – who would oversee that all interested parties get access to evidence beforehand. This conference would also be the time when the inquest would be scheduled.

Having attorneys cross-examine witnesses and police officers during the inquest proceeding was a point of contention, as it has been in previous meetings of the review panel.

“It is going to be adversarial with two attorneys up there, no doubt about it,” Collins said. “That adversarial confrontation can come later in depositions, in federal court, in wherever.”

As an alternative to an inquest process with two attorneys, Collins offered up an option that the district attorney, along with the coroner and the detectives who worked the case, announce to interested parties why they decided to prosecute or not to prosecute.

“If it’s the district attorney’s job to decide prosecution or not, let the district attorney present the facts that were gathered and make his case,” Collins said.

Another point of sharp debate came when deciding how police officers involved in shooting deaths should be investigated. McLetchie suggested to Sheriff Doug Gillespie that it might be beneficial for Metro Police to have another organization handle the investigation of officer-involved shootings.

Gillespie and Collins were weary of the idea, with Collins saying Metro homicide detectives were more than capable of investigating homicides. Boulware’s response in a sense called out Metro Police, saying that the public perception is that they cannot police themselves.

“That’s part of people’s anger here,” Boulware said. “It’s not simply one or two shootings, it’s the idea that there is a pattern that relates to the police department, whether it’s true or not.”

Many of Boulware’s statements during the review elicited applause from the 50 to 60 members of the audience, a rare reaction in the last two meetings.

However, the biggest applause may have come during public comment from Jim Duensing, a man who was shot three times in the back by an officer, and from Evie Oquendo, the mother of Tanner Chamberlain, who was shot and killed by Metro police.

“Read your constitutions. You are not above the law. If a public servant commits an act while on duty ... they have a legal obligation to defend their action,” Duensing said.

He also suggested that the inquest process remain the same, except that the public defender’s office does the questioning and the investigation.

Oquendo said the district attorney should not bring up a person’s history and “do a character assassination of the deceased.” She also pointed out that when officers shot her son, she was only a few inches away from being the victim.

“When my son was fatally shot in the head, I was directly in front of him,” Oquendo said. “If the officer had missed by inches, I could have been the one fatally shot. Tactically, there should have been better options.”

The recommendations of the panel will be presented to the commission Nov. 16 and the commission will vote Dec. 7.

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