Margie Day stands outside the heavy wooden double doors leading into the Commission Chambers in the Clark County Government Center. She asks the security guard if the public fact-finding review examining the death of Tashii Brown, who died after an officer placed him in an illegal chokehold, is over. Trinita Farmer, Brown’s mother, was warned by her attorney that the review would contain graphic photos of Brown’s autopsy and his last moments alive.
“I’ve been trying to shield her from that,” Day said. “We tried to sit there but when they started showing the photos it was too much. It’s too horrific. When it’s someone you know and love how are you supposed to sit there and act like it’s a movie?”
A Police Fatality Public Fact-finding Review, adopted by the Clark County Commission five years ago, is mandated anytime a police-involved death occurs and the District Attorney’s Office determines that no criminal prosecution of the officer or officers involved is appropriate. The review looked into the circumstances surrounding the 2017 death of 40-year-old, unarmed Tashii Brown and was presided over by Hearing Officer Craig Drummond.
The police officer involved in this case, Kenneth Lopera, was fired after Metro Police said he used an unapproved chokehold on Brown common among mixed martial arts fighters. Lopera was charged with two felony counts of involuntary manslaughter and oppression under the color of office, in connection with the death of Tashii Brown, but a grand jury opted not to indict him.
“After listening to many hours of testimony over several days from numerous witnesses, the Grand Jury — which consists of citizens from our community – voted not to return an indictment against former Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Officer Kenneth Lopera,” District Attorney Steve Wolfson said in the statement at the time. “Considering the fact that a Grand Jury did not find slight or marginal evidence to support a criminal charge, it is highly improbable that a crime could be established beyond a reasonable doubt.”
“Prosecutors are guided by rules of ethics. One such rule provides that a prosecutor shall not proceed with a prosecution if, in good faith, there is a belief that a charge could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” wrote Wolfson.
The Police Fatality Public Fact-finding Review used now was designed to provide the public with transparency to officer-involved deaths where members of the public can submit written questions to the hearing officer during the review. Many questions submitted were dismissed because they related to grand jury proceedings, which are secret by law.
Standing outside the building waiting for the end of the review, Farmer and Day continued to ask the same questions they have for the past year.
“Why did he get acquitted?”
“Why did it take so long to administer CPR?”
“Why didn’t they pull him off Tashii?”
“What threat did Tashii present to anyone?”
“How come cops can kill people and get away with it?”
The procedure for questioning witnesses is informal. The hearing officer can either ask the questions that were submitted, revise them or decline to ask them if he deems them “redundant, irrelevant or an abuse of the review process,” according to the county ordinance. At the end of the review, no formal determination about the manner or cause of death is rendered.
The Police Fatality Public Fact-finding Review has no subpoena power and can not force anyone to attend as a witness. Only one witness showed up to testify. Lopera did not attend the review.
“That system is a charade. It’s a glorified press conference,” said Gary Peck, a civil rights advocate who served as the executive director of ACLU Nevada for 13 years. “They pick the witnesses. They pick the evidence. They decide which questions to ask and how to ask them.”
It was the first time the family’s attorney, Andre M. Lagomarsino, reviewed the independent doctors report by the Force Science Institute, a company ran by William J. Lewinski, a psychologist who regularly testifies in favor of police officers who shoot people under questionable circumstances and whose research has been denounced by the Justice Department as “lacking in both foundation and reliability,” according to the New York Times.
The district attorney’s office sent the case to Force Science for review after the defense questioned Brown’s official cause of death. The Force Science Institute website said they are “dedicated to the unbiased application” of scientific research on “how the mind works during rapidly unfolding events” and “decision-making under stress.”
“[Force Science Institute] is a shop that has been criticized by police executives, by civil rights advocates, by scholars who call their work shame shoddy science, and even by judges who have excluded their testimony and their reports in real legal proceedings,” said Peck.
Peck and Lagomarsino criticized and questioned the district attorney’s heavy reliance on a Force Science Institute report.
“The report wasn’t really independent,” said Lagomarsino. “They are are 100 percent out of 100 in justifying officers actions.”
In a profile by the New York Times, Lewinski is said to often appear as an expert witness before grand juries, where such testimony is given in secret and goes unchallenged.
Lagomarsino said that he felt the review was “a waste of time” and that they plan to purse a criminal civil rights charge against Lopera with the FBI.
“It shines a light on the fact there is no really effective or transparent remedy for families, and the solution is going to have to be a legislative fix, because the process that’s in place now has no bite,” Lagomarsino said.
Farmer says she doesn’t understand the point of the review which left her with the same questions and doubts she started with. She recalls the photos of Brown lying motionless on the floor and his mugshot spread over media outlets.
“He’s got so many nice pictures why would you put that up there?” said Farmer.
She holds up her phone, the home screen is a picture of Brown in his new car. A white dress shirt with a bright red tie.
“He’s an ordained minister, you know. My baby is an ordained minister.”