I-Team: Calls for Reform of Coroner's Inquest Process Grows - 8 News NOW

Investigative Reporter Colleen McCarty and Photojournalist Kyle Zuelke

I-Team: Calls for Reform of Coroner's Inquest Process Grows

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Erik Scott Erik Scott

LAS VEGAS -- A recent 8 News NOW-Las Vegas Review-Journal poll suggests the majority of southern Nevadans don't have much faith in the coroner's inquest process. As a result, local leaders are talking reform again.

This is not the first time public opinion has prompted reform. In 2006, the controversial shooting death of 17-year-old murder suspect Suave Lopez lead to a formal review of the coroner's inquest process.

Recommendations were made, public hearings were held, and changes were implemented. But in the words of one participant, if we're still taking about it the reform fell short.

Las Vegas police officers shot and killed Lopez as he attempted to escape from a squad car in handcuffs. His death, found justified by a coroner's jury, prompted a formal review of the inquest process.

"The controversy, if anything, has increased, not diminished," said Allen Lichtenstein with the Nevada ACLU.

Lichtenstein served on the working group assembled later that year by the Clark County Commission.

"I think the failure of the modest, if you want to call it that, changes that were made before and the fact that we're still having these particular problems, hopefully, will lead to the kind of meaningful change we should have had back then," he said.

The group made up of representatives from Metro, the Clark County District Attorney's Office and other primarily government stakeholders presented three recommendations to county commissioners. The most significant was replacing appointed hearing masters with elected justices of the peace.

While Lichtenstein agreed with move, now in county code, he insists the overall effort fell short of meaningful reform.

"I think on the part of the governmental officials that were there, there was this idea that it might need a little bit of tinkering, but basically no real problem. And we saw it differently," he said.

The ACLU and the NAACP lobbied to give the families of the deceased a voice in the inquest process. Currently, families and their attorneys may only submit written questions to the presiding justice of the peace for review.

In former Clark County Sheriff Bill Young, the minority opinion found an unexpected alibi. Young left the working group prior to completion when he left office in 2007.

"I don't think it's all the way there," he said. "A lot of cops are going to kill me, but I said this then and I'll say it now, I think that it needs a little more. I don't know if adversarialness is the right term, but I think the family members of the deceased need a better opportunity to ask direct questions."

Young advocates a process that would allow families, through an attorney, to question witnesses, including police officers, provided the questions receive prior approval from the court. He cautions against reforms that would jeopardize the rights of police officers. But he, like Lichtenstein, suggest a balance is attainable.

"We want a process that we can all believe in and I'm not sure we're there yet," said Young.

Four years and 44 police shootings separate Suave Lopez from Erik Scott -- the latest catalyst for change.

Metro officers killed Scott earlier this summer in a Summerlin Costco. While the status quo will govern his inquest, Young and Lichtenstein hope future proceedings may take a different shape.

"We're not looking for a steamroller here. We're looking for something that will be accepted by the community, by the participants and something that will absolutely be geared solely to unearthing the truth, regardless of where that truth leads," said Lichtenstein.

The coroner's inquest may not be perfect, but many jurisdictions don't even have a public process. Police shootings in Washoe County are reviewed privately by the District Attorney.

On the other end of the spectrum, Seattle allows for family involvement through an attorney.

Back in 2007, three members of the working group visited Seattle to learn more, but the group as a whole rejected it as a viable option for Clark County.

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