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July 30, 2015

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Inquest panel considers removing verdict from process

Despite a number of disagreements at Monday night’s Coroner’s Inquest Review Panel, there was one issue that some members of the panel agreed on: don’t end the inquest with a verdict.

No official voting took place, but several members of the panel agreed with a suggestion that the coroner’s inquest have no verdict of justified, excusable or criminal. Jurors now must choose among those three options.

“I’m more convinced now than ever that we should not have a verdict at the end of this inquest,” Public Defender Phil Kohn said. “If it’s fact-finding … then the whole purpose of this is to find out what happened at a given time in history. Whether this is criminal in nature is always going to be up to the district attorney to determine.”

Panel Chairman Christopher Blakesley said a decision on whether inquests include a verdict would serve as a foundation for deciding other issues. He agreed with Kohn’s suggestion on removing the verdict, adding that jurors would need specific instructions on what facts would be sought out during the inquest.

Chris Collins, executive director of the Police Protective Association, and ACLU of Nevada attorney Margaret McLetchie agreed that doing away with a verdict could help the inquest process.

“The question is what [the jurors] are going to find,” McLetchie said. “I do agree with the consensus that seems to be developing.”

Collins said having no verdict wouldn’t be a sticking point for the police association.

“I believe that the officers would prefer a verdict, because it’s kind of a justification from the citizenry on what they did,” Collins said. “If no verdict is what comes out of it, then that’s OK.”

Besides deciding on whether there should be a verdict, the issue of making the coroner’s inquest a fact-finding process or an adversarial process – letting attorneys cross-examine witnesses and police officers – was a debated point of contention.

The seed of the discussion was planted when Collins said the panel needed to agree on what the ultimate purpose of an inquest would be.

“The problem is we keep talking about all these little parts of the inquest and we’re not getting to the meat of the matter,” he said. “Do we need an inquest at all? Is it going to be adversarial? Or is it going to remain in some faction like it is today?”

Coroner Michael Murphy echoed Collins’ statements, saying the panel would be stuck in a “circular conversation” until the purpose of an inquest was addressed.

District Attorney David Roger warned the panel of advocating for an adversarial process, citing the 2007 Coroner’s Inquest Review Panel.

“What we envisioned in 2007 has turned into actually a circus,” Roger said. “I don’t think it’s really a search for a truth but merely questions designed to provide information for a federal lawsuit. When you start allowing cross-examination … it’s going to turn out to be an expanded deposition.”

McLetchie said the distinction between the process being fact-finding and adversarial is meaningless.

“Juries find facts all the time and that is through the adversarial process,” she said. “That adversarial process is what we’re used to and it works. It lets truth come to light because you have both sides, people with a vested interest in getting their side of the story out there.”

Collins said the Police Protective Association is against an adversarial process.

“The officers should not face cross-examination in the inquest process,” he said. “They’ve been accused of no crime, they’ve been charged with no crime.”

The next review panel will be at 5 p.m. Monday, Nov. 1, in the Clark County Commission Chambers, 500 S. Grand Central Parkway. Voting on recommendations to be sent to the county commission will take place at the last meeting on Monday, Nov. 8.

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