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How did the coroner's inquest for fatal police shootings become the fact-finding review in Clark County?

Posted at 3:50 PM, Apr 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-16 19:29:08-04

A fact-finding review was held April 16 for Jorge Gomez, who as shot by Las Vegas police officers during a George Floyd protest last summer in downtown Las Vegas.

RELATED: No video shown during fact-finding review that proves Jorge Gomez raised his gun before being shot

Many people have expressed displeasure over the years with the fact-finding review process, which was implemented in 2013. Before the current system was put into place, a coroner's inquest would be held whenever there was a fatal police shooting. Of course, people were also critical of that process.

Here's how the process has changed over the last dozen years or so.

In 2007, the Clark County Commission tweaked the coroner’s inquest process in an effort to improve the oft-criticized review of fatal police shootings.

During the coroner’s inquest process at that time, the prosecutor, judge and jury were allowed to answer questions in open court. Police officers were required to participate.

The inquests would often last for days since anyone and everyone connected to the case could be called.

At the end of the inquest, a jury could decide during the hearing if a shooting was justified, unjustified or criminal.

In 2010, there was renewed interest in the process after a former Army officer, Erik Scott, was shot by three police officers outside a Costco store in Summerlin.

The Clark County commissioners began discussing changes to the current process, creating a review panel to propose changes to the coroner’s inquest.

In September 2010, the coroner’s inquest for the police shooting of Erik Scott was televised at the suggestion of then Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak.

In November 2010, it was decided that a lawyer to represent the family of dead needed to be added to the process.

Chris Collins, the head of the Las Vegas Police Protective Association, vowed that his officers would not participate in future inquests, saying that the change transformed the process into a fault-finding hearing instead of a fact-finding hearing.

Steve Sisolak began working to introduce a proposal that would ensure that police officers would still be willing to participate.

In 2011, Clark County commissioners approved several changes to the coroner’s inquest, including restricting the coroner’s inquest attorneys who acted as ombudsmen for the families of those killed by police. The new rules said that lawyers could not be involved in lawsuits impugning how police used face against a suspect either 5 years before or 5 years after an inquest.

The reforms also allowed police officers to have a union attorney at hearings; eliminated jury verdicts; and established a system for information to be disclosed publicly before inquests.

The changes also required 2 pre-inquest meetings when investigative files would be shared with the family.

Additionally, the jury was replaced with a panel that would make findings of fact instead of fault, giving the families no basis for litigation.

In June 2011, the Las Vegas Police Protective Association filed a lawsuit on behalf of Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department officers that challenged the constitutionality of the new coroner’s inquest.

And in August 2011, the ACLU of Nevada filed a motion to intervene in the suit challenging the process.

In May 2012, the Nevada Supreme Court delayed coroner’s inquests indefinitely and scheduled oral arguments on the inquest’s constitutionality.

The Nevada Supreme Court upheld the reforms in October 2012, but because of the controversy, no inquests took place for 2 years.

In 2013, the Clark County Commission voted 4 to 2 to do away with the coroner’s inquest process and introduced a new fact-finding only process for fatal officer-involved shootings.

The citizen panel that acted as a pseudo-jury during inquests was gotten rid of completely and the hearings were moved out of courtrooms.

Additionally, the changes allowed for fewer witnesses to be called, relying on reports gathering by police investigators instead.

Also, the ability of the ombudsman to call witnesses was removed.

Additionally, it was decided that the police fatality review process would be triggered whenever the District Attorney’s Office made a preliminary ruling that a shooting was not criminal.

Under the new process, a prosecutor makes the presentation of the essential facts of the case, which may or may not include officer testimony. The prosecutor can then call relevant witnesses, who can be questioned by the ombudsman and the presiding officer. The presiding officer was also given power to question witnesses.

Clark County Commissioners Steve Sisolak, Mary Beth Scow and Larry Brown approved the process.

Commissioners Tom Collins and Lawrence Weekly opposed.

Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani was absent because of a travel delay. She voiced her displeasure of the new process after it was approved, saying it had been watered down.

Six months and three hearings later, the Clark County Commission reviewed the process and decided no major changes were needed. The only addition was a closing statement at the end of the review.

Today's fact-finding review of the Jorge Gomez case was the 86th such review. In none of the previous cases was a decision made to charge an officer or officers for the death of a citizen.