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Coroner’s inquest review panel proposes changes

Updated Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2010 | 2:24 a.m.

It took more than five hours Monday night, but members of the Coroner’s Inquest Review Panel voted on recommendations for changes to the coroner’s inquest process.

The suggestions came after four meetings that saw plenty of debate about juries, verdicts and the possible merits and disadvantages of an adversarial process – letting attorneys cross-examine witnesses and police officers.

Perhaps the biggest change came with the panel’s recommendation that an ombudsman for the public and a representative for the police now be able to ask questions during the inquest process. The presiding officer, jury — now named an “inquest panel” -- and District Attorney, acting as a presenter of facts, would still be allowed to ask questions as well.

The recommendation, if approved by the Clark County Commission, would allow cross-examination and effectively change the current process to be more adversarial – something Chris Collins, executive director of the Police Protective Association, Sheriff Doug Gillespie and District Attorney David Roger spoke against.

A motion that would allow attorneys to question witnesses was proposed by ACLU of Nevada attorney Margaret McLetchie, but the vote tied 5-5. Later, the motion was reconsidered and passed 8-2.

Several police officers showed up for a public comment session to warn the board of what could happen if the process turned adversarial.

Officer Michael Ramirez was brief and to the point.

“We are not going to participate if you change it to adversarial,” Ramirez said, then walked back to his seat.

Before the subject arose of attorneys questioning witnesses, Roger proposed a motion that would remove his office from the process entirely, a move that caught many by surprise.

Roger also proposed in the motion that an independent party examine and investigate cases. But by removing his office from the process, prosecutors and investigators would also be removed, laying most of the investigative work on someone else’s shoulders.

Roger said he didn’t feel it would be appropriate for his office to be involved if the process turned adversarial. He also said the public perceived a bias with the DA’s office and the motion would rectify that.

“I believe we are going down a bad path, a path where it’s going to be adversarial. I can’t buy into a lot of these changes,” Roger said.

Collins echoed Roger’s sentiments and added he was displeased that the district attorney wanted to be removed from the process.

“I think it’s a shame that this process is going to become adversarial and it’s a shame and a loss to our community … that the DA has decided to remove himself,” Collins said. “I believe it is another giant step in the wrong direction.”

The motion on removal of the district attorney initially passed 5 to 4 with one member abstaining. But an hour later, the subject was brought up for reconsideration, along with allowing attorneys to participate directly in the inquest process.

NAACP attorney Richard Boulware proposed the two motions be reconsidered and it was quickly supported by McLetchie, Clark County public defender Phil Kohn and newly appointed board member Jose Solorio.

“I think our 5-5 vote proved that this is a close issue. I realize we’ve been here a number of hours, but now we know we’re in the middle,” Kohn said. “Saying we can’t make a decision is not what we came here to do.”

For the next 45 minutes, panel members went back and forth on whether to reconsider the motions.

Eventually a motion was proposed: having the DA’s office be involved with the process and to also have attorneys for the decedent’s family and police officers ask questions of witnesses through an independent ombudsman.

It passed 8-2, with only Roger and Collins voting against.

The panel decided a jury should remain part of the process, but it would be referred to as an “inquest panel.” The committee Monday night recommended that the inquest panel not find a verdict, but rather determine facts.

It was also proposed there would be two pre-inquest conferences, where the presiding officer would work with attorneys for interested parties, the decedent’s family and the police officers involved, as to the scope of questioning and when the inquest would be held.

The panel voted to have video and transcripts of an inquest available online as soon as possible.

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

CORRECTION: This story was changed to more accurately reflect the role of the ombudsman in the panel’s recommendations. The story previously stated that attorneys would submit questions to the ombudsman during the inquest. | (November 9, 2010)

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