Taking Action to Achieve Transparency
The shooting deaths of Trevon Cole and Erik Scott by Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) officers have garnered an unprecedented level of attention across Clark County. Numerous organizations, including the League of Action, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, NAACP – Las Vegas, Nevada Attorneys for Criminal Justice, and the ACLU of Nevada, have spoken out about concerns with failures of the coroner’s inquest process to provide meaningful oversight over actions of officers. The ACLU of Nevada, individual citizens and organized groups have been taking action and demanding change.
The stories of three separate officer-involved deaths highlights some of the many problems of the Coroner's Inquest process.
Maggie McLetchie, an attorney with the ACLU of Nevada, attended the August 21-22 inquest into the Trevon Cole shooting as an observer and “interested party” as defined by Clark County Code § 2.12.010 (n)(3). The Cole inquest confirmed the fears and concerns the community has long expressed about the lack of fairness and lack of transparency in the coroner’s inquest system.
From the start, the system seemed stacked against any possibility of holding the police accountable. Of particular note was the fact that for a case in which a white officer shot and killed a young African-American man, not a single member of the jury was African-American. Additionally, when selecting the jury, potential jurors were asked if they had “any affiliation” or knew anyone with any affiliation with a group or organization that lobbies for the abolition or reform of the current coroner’s inquest process – potentially invalidating any juror who was a member or even knew a member of the ACLU or the NAACP. The Cole family had no input on the subject of the jury questionnaire.
Metro officers were not questioned vigorously. In contrast, the lawyers from the District Attorney’s Office – who outside of the coroner’s inquest works with Metro routinely – seemed determined to vilify Cole’s young fiancée. The Deputy D.A. asked the new mother inflammatory questions about her late fiancé’s marijuana habit and evoked testimony from her that when police entered Cole’s apartment she was watching a Cripps and Bloods documentary because she knew some of the persons featured in it – and then glossed only perfunctorily over the fact that she knew them because she had been employed at a Los Angeles facility that works with juvenile delinquents.
The Cole family and other interested parties had to write furiously to submit questions to the witnesses through the presiding officer, who had total discretion over whether or how to ask each question. The Cole family was seeing and hearing most of the evidence presented for the very first time; meanwhile, the D.A.’s Office had weeks to prepare its witnesses and evidence. The Cole family was not permitted to call any witnesses or ask any follow up questions. On the other hand, the Deputy D.A.s failed to call one witness on the witness list without any explanation and was permitted to follow up and clarify any questions submitted by the interested parties.
Finally, when it came time to instruct the jury and send them to deliberate the evidence the D.A.’s Office had presented to it, the Deputy D.A. explained the definition and standards for justified homicide (self-defense) and excusable homicide (accident) – but neglected entirely to instruct the jury on its third option, criminal homicide. The jury found the killing to be justified.
On May 19, 2010, two Metro police officers ignored their sergeant’s commands to cease pursuing a suspected drunk driver Ivan Carrillo. Instead, they continued the chase and allegedly executed the Precision Intervention Technique (PIT), which is a strategic bumping of a suspect’s car in order to cause the suspect to stop. The chase ended later when the officers’ car bumped Carrilo’s again, causing a multi-vehicle crash in which one driver was injured and hospitalized, and Carrillo died a short time later at University Medical Center.
Police policy states that executing the PIT at speeds over 40 miles per hour constitutes use of deadly force. Clark County Code § 2.12.080(c) mandates that “[w]hen an officer [is] involved in the death of an individual, the coroner will call for an inquest.” Despite the fact that two officers were “involved” in Carrillo’s death, Clark County Coroner Michael Murphy declined to hold an inquest into his death.
The ACLU of Nevada wrote to Coroner Murphy to ask why he had not called an inquest into Carrillo’s death. Mr. Murphy’s response stated that no inquest was held because the District Attorney had decided to file criminal charges against the involved officers. This failure to hold an inquest is unacceptable. The Clark County Code says that inquests “will” be held for deaths in which an officer is involved; it is not a discretionary provision that allows any person or office to decide which deaths are or are not “worthy” of an inquest. Inquests play a vital role in ensuring that police are held accountable for their actions when their actions involve taking a life. Failing to hold an inquest into Carrillo’s death evades an important system of public oversight of the police force.
Both the attorney for the Erik Scott family, Ross Goodman, and the ACLU of Nevada have petitioned the Clark County Coroner, Mike Murphy; Sheriff Douglas Gillespie; presiding officer Judge Tony Abbatangelo, and District Attorney David Roger for access to the jury questionnaire, witness list, witness statements, videotapes, other evidence, and jury instructions to be used in the upcoming Scott inquest. We argue that the family and the public at large are entitled to access to these materials under Clark County Code § 2.12.080, the Public Records Act, and in the interests of due process and justice. However, our request to meet with the presiding officer was denied.
On September 7, 2010, the Commission voted to televise the upcoming inquest into Erik Scott’s death on September 22-24. While this is an important step in further educating the public about the coroner’s inquest system, televising the inquest does not by itself made the system transparent. Instead, the ACLU of Nevada hopes that the public will watch the inquest with a critical eye towards identifying the aspects of the system that need to be changed, and that the viewing public will write the Commission seeking such change. The ACLU of Nevada, together with the Scott family’s spokesperson, Lisa Mayo-DeRiso, and Scott family’s attorney, Ross Goodman, has prepared a “Viewer’s Guide” for the upcoming Scott inquest that can help the viewing public identify specific areas of concern.
The ACLU of Nevada and other interested groups have been meeting with community leaders to discuss vital changes to the coroner’s inquest system in Clark County. The problem cannot be overcome by means of another committee, as was convened in 2007 when some superficial changes to the system were made, while ignoring the most important reforms such as allowing the family’s legal representative to play a direct role in the inquest process. Instead, the ACLU of Nevada and its allies, supported by individual concerned citizens who contact their Commissioners of their own volition, urge the Commission to make immediate and meaningful change. The ACLU of Nevada seeks fairness and justice for police officers and victims alike. Only by ensuring that the coroner’s inquest process is truly transparent and by presenting all sides of the story can this be achieved.
The ACLU of Nevada is working with its community allies to draft proposed changes to the County Code. Key amongst these will be a renewed insistence that the victim’s family’s representative be permitted to play a role in the inquest itself and the process leading up to it. In the meantime, we encourage concerned citizens to contact their Commissioners to ask them to support the changes proposed by the ACLU of Nevada.