[Essay] In search of the truth

We need a better way to investigate police shootings

Joshua Longobardy

The Clark County district attorney began the coroner’s inquest into the death of Deshira Selimaj, this past April 10 and 11, by stating to the jurors that this was not an adversarial hearing, but a fact-finding process. Of course, this premise is inherently faulty, as all the facts of a circumstance cannot be found without asking tough questions; but in the case of Selimaj, who was shot and killed by Henderson police officer Luke Morrison, the premise was doubly flawed thanks to the fact that tough questions were posed to only certain witnesses who came to testify, and not others.

In essence, testifying police officers were let off the hook by the DA, who serves as the sole inquisitor during the process, while witnesses whose version of the February 12 events contradicted the police’s account were confronted with questions that were not only adversarial, but at times also loaded, leading and downright argumentative.

This all made for the appearance of an overtly biased DA. So much so, in fact, that nearly all of the media watching the two-day event from inside the Regional Justice Center courtroom, myself included, were taken aback—appalled even—and our feelings would later be corroborated by the ACLU of Nevada and by an inundation of citizen calls and e-mails expressing outrage.

The coroner’s inquest jury deemed Morrison’s fatal actions justifiable. Their decision might have been correct; it might not have. But we in the public have no way to know, due to the problems associated with the inquest process. It served neither the Henderson Police Department nor the family of the deceased, and it in all certainty did not serve the public at large. It is an untenable public process and needs to be reformed.

ACLU of Nevada Executive Director Gary Peck, who has been watching inquests for the past decade, says that the Selimaj inquest, at which he was present, was a perfect example of just how “shoddy the inquest was and how many questions about what happened remained unasked and unanswered.”

District Attorney Christopher Lalli, one of the two DAs who investigated the Selimaj case, says adversarial questions would be a violation of the constitution. “The inquest is not set up that way,” he says.

But when the DA did ask questions, they were oftentimes loaded, leading and argumentative. DA Christopher Laurent even began posing hypothetical questions to witnesses unwavering in their belief that the shooting was not justified.

Like many present at the inquest, Peck was outraged. He says: “What this has to do with supposed fact-finding is a mystery to me.”

Coroner Michael Murphy, who was present both days of the Selimaj inquest as its facilitator, says that he can see where the DA appeared to be more aggressive with some of the witnesses. “But sometimes,” he says, “I have seen where it was called for.”

That is true, and also the exact reason no one—above all the police—should be exempt from tough questions in the aftermath of something as crucial as a fatal shooting.

“This inquest was obviously biased, obviously meant to paint the rosiest picture possible,” says Peck. “There’s no question about it.”

In his defense, Lalli says the DA called up many witnesses before the jury whose accounts differed from the police’s; and he is correct.

Lalli, furthermore, says the opinion rendered by the jury—justifiable homicide—was consistent with his office’s review of the case. “We think we got to the truth,” he says.

According to the statutes, the DA runs the show by himself. The DA’s responsibility, according to Murphy, is to provide jurors with factual information so that they can make a decision as to whether the homicide was justifiable, excusable or criminal. But what if the DA carries out this duty in a biased or inappropriate manner?

“That’s why we have presiding officers,” says Murphy.

It is up to the presiding officer, who retains the same authority as he would in his own courtroom, to ensure the incorruptibility of the proceedings. The presiding officer, Henderson Justice of the Peace Rodney Burr, says, “This process is what it is. That’s how the County Commission wants it.”

Murphy says he believes the DAs and presiding officers both do a good job.

Neither I nor the ACLU, nor many journalists and citizens who’ve watched the Selimaj inquest, agree.

“While watching this inquest I had an epiphany,” says Peck. “I realized that in my 10 years of watching these dog-and-pony shows I have never once heard a [presiding officer] lodge a single objection to the DA’s questions.”

How can the jury render a decision that inspires confidence when it was not presented with all the facts?

“You have adversarial hearings in civil proceedings,” says Lalli.

Peck agrees. He says that because the inquest system lacks integrity, the families of the deceased searching for answers are left with only one recourse, and that is a civil suit in federal court.

But what recourse does the public have?

Last year the ACLU, along with other critics of the coroner’s inquest, appealed to the Clark County Board of Commissioners to have the process reformed.

“No meaningful changes came from that,” says Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, who along with Lawrence Weekly were the only commissioners to vote for comprehensive reform.

Peck says he would like to see the DA taken out of the process and substituted with officials from the state attorney general’s office.

“We already tried to get the AG to do it,” says Commissioner Bruce Woodbury. “But they declined.”

Giunchigliani says they declined because they didn’t want to step into a process that was already flawed; hence, the need for comprehensive reform.

In the end, the police, who like any branch of the government are accountable to the public, should face tough questions out loud, in the open. Woodbury says this is not feasible because cops would take the Fifth during inquests if presented with adversarial questions, so as to not incriminate themselves.

Peck says that Seattle has instituted a system by which the police face cross-examination after a death, and all of its subpoenaed officers still show up and testify. Adversarial questions are part of the natural course for investigating truth.

Peck says it might take an act of legislation to see meaningful change.

But Barbara Buckley, among the most powerful lawmakers in the Nevada Legislature, says she’s been so consumed with the state’s budget crisis and hepatitis C scare that she has not heard any discussion about the Clark County coroner’s inquest among her peers.

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