Sunday, September 19, 2010

POLICE SHOOTINGS The law playing outlaw?

POLICE SHOOTINGS: Inquests trigger questions, more reform talk

Costco shooting renews public clamor for changes


In 2007, the Clark County Commission tweaked the coroner's inquest process amid a push to improve the oft-criticized review of fatal police shootings.

At the time, the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada said the changes did not go far enough toward balancing what they called a one-sided process that favored police officers.

Three years later, the inquest remains a flawed process ripe for reform, said Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel for the ACLU.

"Now we're several years down the road, and obviously the system isn't fixed because we're having the same problems," he said.

In the wake of several recent high-profile police shootings that have piqued public interest in the inquest, the ACLU, community groups and public officials are again calling for a fresh look at the way Clark County reviews deaths caused by police officers.

The ACLU, citing a "growing public sentiment" for change, is planning to ask county commissioners to implement key reforms that were rejected in 2007, after a review by a committee of community groups and government officials, Lichtenstein said.

At least one commissioner supports the move.

"It is time to take another look at it," said Chris Giunchigliani, who believes the current system has fundamental flaws and supported changes rejected three years ago.

The case that has sparked new interest in inquest reform is the July shooting of Erik Scott, a former Army officer shot and killed by three Las Vegas police officers outside a Summerlin Costco store.

Witness accounts vary, but police say Scott, a medical device salesman, pulled one of two guns he legally carried when officers approached him in response to a 911 call from a Costco employee who said a man with a gun was acting erratically in the store.

The Scott inquest begins Wednesday amid an unusual level of interest among the public and policymakers, in part because of the clean-cut image of the dead man, the shooting's location in an upscale community and the Scott family's high-profile criticism of police and of the inquest process.

Commissioner Steve Sisolak, who pushed for broadcast of the Scott inquest by the county's television channel, said he will watch the inquest before deciding whether changes are needed.

"Maybe we do need to revisit it. I don't know," he said, adding that this inquest will be the first he has seen.

Informal discussions already have been taking place among community groups and elected officials about possible changes.

Sheriff Doug Gillespie said he has met with the Metropolitan Police Department's unions, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and others to discuss the inquest process. While not promoting any reform proposals, Gillespie said the process is not perfect.

"I'm not happy with it," Gillespie said, adding that he doesn't think anyone else is happy with it either.

Inquests are intended as a fact-finding process -- not a trial -- in which jurors decide whether the actions of police are justified, excusable or criminal. During the nonadversarial hearing, prosecutors from the district attorney's office question witnesses and present evidence.

Representatives of the dead person's family cannot directly question witnesses. Instead, they can submit written questions to the justice of the peace overseeing the hearing, who decides whether to ask them.

The ACLU and others believe a family representative should be allowed to question witnesses directly.

In 2007, Giunchigliani, the ACLU and others supported that change, but it was rejected by the commission amid worries that police officers would effectively cut off information by invoking their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refusing to testify if they have to face cross-examination by a family lawyer.

Giunchigliani said a new review of the inquest probably would look at the 2007 proposals and inquest procedures used in the Seattle area, where King County allows a family representative to question witnesses and review evidence before the hearing. She said she didn't think the county needs to form another citizens committee to make recommendations, as it did three years ago.

Inquests are not as common in other states, where officer-involved deaths are more often reviewed in private by a prosecutor's office or a grand jury. Clark County District Attorney David Roger, whose deputies conduct the inquests, stressed that the public often expects inquests to be more like a criminal or civil trial than a fact-finding look into the circumstances of the shootings. They are not criminal or civil trials, he said.

"The critics of the inquest system want it to be something it's not used for," Roger said.

In cases where police officers kill someone criminally, Roger said they would be charged before an inquest.

He pointed to the cases of a Las Vegas police officer who committed a fatal drive-by shooting and a Nevada Highway Patrol trooper who killed four people when his speeding patrol car slammed into a car on Interstate 15.

Both officers were prosecuted by Roger's office and sent to prison.

Chris Collins, executive director of the Police Protective Association, the union representing 2,500 rank-and-file Las Vegas police officers, said the current inquest is as open and public as any review process anywhere. He doesn't think it needs to change.

If a family lawyer is added to the process, police officers could stop cooperating, Collins said.

"If it becomes so much like a criminal trial where officers refuse to participate, then there's no point in the process."

He blamed a "small, vocal minority" of people pushing for changes.

"Until one of our officers goes to jail for murder, that small minority won't be satisfied," Collins said.


• A Clark County coroner’s inquest is held any time someone dies at the hands of police officers. The Clark County Code defines it as a fact-finding process where a jury hears testimony from the officer, the medical examiner, police investigators and witnesses. Witnesses can be subpoenaed to appear, and all testimony is under oath.

• The inquest is held in a courtroom open to the public, which makes it unusual. In most jurisdictions, officer-involved shootings are reviewed only by secret grand juries or within a district attorney’s office, with no public airing of the facts.

• A representative from the Clark County district attorney’s office questions witnesses and a judge presides over the process, but the inquest is not a court proceeding or a trial.

• The family or representatives of the deceased may submit written questions to the judge, who decides whether to ask them to witnesses. Neither family members nor their attorney can directly question the witnesses.

• Seven jurors selected randomly from the county court’s regular jury pool hear the evidence.

• Jurors must select one of three findings: justified, excusable or criminal.

• Unlike a criminal trial, the jury vote need not be unanimous. The determination is based on a majority vote, and has no force of law.

• The Nevada attorney general’s office, through an agreement with the district attorney’s office, determines whether an officer will face charges, regardless of the jury vote.


• The inquest into the death of Erik Scott, killed July 11 outside a Summerlin Costco store, begins at 10 a.m. Wednesday in courtroom 16D at the Regional Justice Center, 200 Lewis Ave., in downtown Las Vegas. Justice of the Peace Tony Abbatangelo will preside.

• The coroner’s office has scheduled three days for the inquest, but it could last longer.

• Limited seating in the courtroom is available on a first-come, first-served basis. Spectators also can watch live video feeds in overflow courtrooms.

• The inquest will be broadcast live by Clark County’s cable channel 4 and by KSNV-TV’s digital channel 123 (on Cox Communications) and on the station’s over-the-air channel 3.2. The channel will also be streaming it live on its Web site,


U.S. platoon in Afghanistan accused of killing civilians for sport

Members of U.S. platoon in Afghanistan accused of killing civilians for sport

The U.S. soldiers hatched a plan as simple as it was savage: to randomly target and kill an Afghan civilian, and to get away with it.

For weeks, according to Army charging documents, rogue members of a platoon from the 5th Stryker Combat Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, floated the idea. Then, one day last winter, a solitary Afghan man approached them in the village of La Mohammed Kalay. The "kill team" activated the plan.

One soldier created a ruse that they were under attack, tossing a fragmentary grenade on the ground. Then others opened fire.

According to charging documents, the unprovoked, fatal attack on Jan. 15 was the start of a months-long shooting spree against Afghan civilians that resulted in some of the grisliest allegations against American soldiers since the U.S. invasion in 2001. Members of the platoon have been charged with dismembering and photographing corpses, as well as hoarding a skull and other human bones.

The subsequent investigation has raised accusations about whether the military ignored warnings that the out-of-control soldiers were committing atrocities. The father of one soldier said he repeatedly tried to alert the Army after his son told him about the first killing, only to be rebuffed.

Two more slayings would follow. Military documents allege that five members of the unit staged a total of three murders in Kandahar province between January and May. Seven other soldiers have been charged with crimes related to the case, including hashish use, attempts to impede the investigation and a retaliatory gang assault on a private who blew the whistle.

Army officials have not disclosed a motive for the killings and macabre behavior. Nor have they explained how the attacks could have persisted without attracting scrutiny. They declined to comment on the case beyond the charges that have been filed, citing the ongoing investigation.

But a review of military court documents and interviews with people familiar with the investigation suggest the killings were committed essentially for sport by soldiers who had a fondness for hashish and alcohol.

The accused soldiers, through attorneys and family members, deny wrongdoing. But the case has already been marked by a cycle of accusations and counter-accusations among the defendants as they seek to pin the blame on each other, according to documents and interviews.

The Army has scheduled pre-trial hearings in the case this fall at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, home of the Stryker brigade. (The unit was renamed the 2nd Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, when it returned from Afghanistan in July.) Military officials say privately that they worry the hearings will draw further attention to the case, with photos and other evidence prompting anger among the Afghan civilians whose support is critical to the fight against the Taliban.

The 'kill team'

According to statements given to investigators, members of the unit - 3rd Platoon, Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment - began talking about forming a "kill team" in December, shortly after the arrival of a new member, Staff Sgt. Calvin R. Gibbs, 25, of Billings, Mont.

Gibbs, whom some defendants have described as the ringleader, confided to his new mates that it had been easy for him to get away with "stuff" when he served in Iraq in 2004, according to the statements. It was his second tour in Afghanistan, having served there from January 2006 until May 2007.

The first opportunity presented itself Jan. 15 in the Maiwand district of Kandahar province. Members of the 3rd Platoon were providing perimeter security for a meeting between Army officers and tribal elders in the village of La Mohammed Kalay.

According to charging documents, an Afghan named Gul Mudin began walking toward the soldiers. As he approached, Cpl. Jeremy N. Morlock, 22, of Wasilla, Alaska, threw the grenade on the ground, records show, to create the illusion that the soldiers were under attack.

Pfc. Andrew H. Holmes, a 19-year-old from Boise, Idaho, saw the grenade and fired his weapon at Mudin, according to charging documents. The grenade exploded, prompting other soldiers to open fire on the villager as well, killing him.

In statements to investigators, the soldiers involved have given conflicting details. In one statement that his attorney has subsequently tried to suppress, Morlock said that Gibbs had given him the grenade and that others were also aware of the ruse beforehand. But Holmes and his attorney said he was in the dark and opened fire only because Morlock ordered him to do so.

"He was unwittingly used as the cover story," said Daniel Conway, a civilian defense attorney for Holmes. "He was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Morlock, Holmes and Gibbs have each been charged with murder in the shooting. Attorneys for Morlock and Gibbs did not return phone calls seeking comment.

A father's warning

On Feb. 14, Christopher Winfield, a former Marine from Cape Coral, Fla., logged onto his Facebook account to chat with his son, Adam, a 3rd Platoon soldier who was up late in Afghanistan. Spec. Adam C. Winfield confided that he'd had a run-in with Gibbs, his squad leader. He also typed a mysterious note saying that some people get away with murder.

When his father pressed him to explain, Adam replied, "did you not understand what i just told you." He then referred to the slaying of the Afghan villager the month before, adding that other platoon members had threatened him because he did not approve. In addition, he said, they were bragging about how they wanted to find another victim.

"I was just shocked," Christopher Winfield said in a phone interview. "He was scared for his life at that point."

The father told his son that he would contact the Army to intervene and investigate. It was a Sunday, but he didn't wait. He called the Army inspector general's 24-hour hotline and left a voice mail. He called the office of Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), and left another message. He called a sergeant at Lewis-McChord who told him to call the Army's criminal investigations division. He left another message there.

Finally, he said, he called the Fort Lewis command center and spoke for 12 minutes to a sergeant on duty. He said the sergeant agreed that it sounded as if Adam was in potential danger but that, unless he was willing to report it to his superiors in Afghanistan, there was little the Army could do.

"He just kind of blew it off," Christopher Winfield said. "I was sitting there with my jaw on the ground."

Winfield said he doesn't recall the name of the sergeant he spoke with. Billing records that he kept confirm that he called Army officials; he also kept copies of transcripts of Facebook chats with this son. He said he specifically told the sergeant of his son's warning that more murders were in the works.

Army investigators have since taken a sworn statement from Christopher Winfield, as well as copies of his phone and Internet records.

Other killings

Eight days after Winfield tried to warn the Army, according to charging documents, members of the 3rd Platoon murdered someone else.

On Feb. 22, Marach Agha, an Afghan civilian, was killed by rifle fire near Forward Operating Base Ramrod in Kandahar province, where the 3rd Platoon was stationed. The Army has released few details about the slaying but has charged Gibbs, Morlock and Spec. Michael S. Wagnon II of Las Vegas with murder.

Wagnon has also been charged with possessing "a skull taken from an Afghan person's corpse." He allegedly took the head sometime during January or February 2010, but court documents do not specify whether it belonged to the Afghan he is charged with killing.

An attorney for Wagnon, who was on his second tour in Afghanistan and also served in Iraq, did not return a call seeking comment.

More mayhem followed in March, when Gibbs, Wagnon and three other soldiers - Staff Sgt. Robert G. Stevens, Sgt. Darren N. Jones and Pfc. Ashton A. Moore - opened fire on three Afghan men, according to charging documents. The documents do not provide basic details, such as the precise date of the shooting, the identities of the victims or whether they were wounded.

Members of the 3rd Platoon found their next victim on May 2, documents show. Gibbs, Morlock and Adam Winfield - the son of the former Marine who said he tried to alert the Army three months earlier - are accused of tossing a grenade and fatally shooting an Afghan cleric, Mullah Adahdad, near Forward Operating Base Ramrod.

Winfield's attorney, Eric S. Montalvo, said his client was ordered to shoot but fired high and missed. He and Winfield's parents say they can't understand why the Army has charged their son, given that his father tried to warn officials about the platoon.

Military police caught wind of the final killing a few days later, but only by happenstance. Records show they were coincidentally investigating reports of hashish use by members of the 3rd Platoon.

After word leaked that one soldier had spoken to military police, several platoon members retaliated, records show. They confronted the informant and beat him severely - punching, kicking and choking the soldier, then dragging him across the ground. As a last warning, the documents state, Gibbs menacingly waved finger bones he had collected from Afghan corpses.

However, the informant talked to the MPs again and told them what he had heard about the slayings, according to court documents.

Some members of his unit, he said in a statement, "when they are out at a village, wander off and kill someone and every time they say the same thing, about a guy throwing a grenade, but there is never proof."

This time, the Army acted quickly and made arrests.

Staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.