VIN SUPRYNOWICZ: It's fine for police to kill people, so long as there's no 'ill will'
Do we live in a free country or a police state?
In a free country, police live under and must obey the same laws as the rest of us.
In a police state, government police enjoy special laws and protections that allow them to do things that would be considered crimes if done by the rest of us.
Late at night on June 11, Las Vegas police Detective Bryan Yant led five other armed officers in beating down the door of a Las Vegas apartment to arrest a suspected minor marijuana dealer named Trevon Cole.
Finding Cole in the darkened bathroom, where police assert he was flushing the dried medicinal plant down the toilet, Yant, whose flashlight wasn't working and who neglected to bring along a partner, shot the young black suspect dead.
On Aug. 21, a local coroner's jury, instructed that they could reach another finding only if they believed Yant had "criminal intent," took 90 minutes to exonerate him in the shooting.
Despite contradictory statements by nearly everyone who testified -- and forensic evidence that the fatal AR-15 rifle bullet penetrated down through the cheek into the deceased's neck, meaning he had to be squatting or kneeling on the floor -- Detective Yant stood by his story that he fired the fatal shot only after Cole stood up, turned and thrust his hands toward him as if he had a gun.
No gun was found in the apartment. Oddly, a yellow tube of lip balm was found in the dead man's left hand.
In the estimation of the medical examiner and homicide detective who investigated the case, Cole turned in Yant's direction while crouched over the toilet. But based on how Cole's body was found, the medical examiner said it was highly unlikely that Cole took a step toward Yant, as the detective claimed.
Assistant District Attorney Chris Owens noted that the evidence -- including testimony from fellow officers who did not hear both a door kick and gunshot -- pointed toward an accidental discharge simultaneous with the door kick.
It's not the first time Yant's story has failed to match the physical evidence. On Nov. 17, 2001, Yant said he was chasing Richard Travis Brown, dubbed "The Candy Bar Robber," on foot. Yant told that inquest jury that Brown reached for a gun as the two ran down the sidewalk. Yant fired three to four rounds. Brown fell, face first. Yant said Brown then tried to re-aim the gun at him, requiring Yant to fire three to four more rounds, killing Brown.
But crime scene analysts recovered Brown's handgun on the sidewalk 35 feet away from where he'd been shot.
During this month's inquest into Yant's second killing, Narcotics Sgt. John Harney testified about a number of errors leading up to Trevon Cole's death, beginning with Detective Yant's affidavit seeking a search warrant.
In Yant's affidavit, he mistakenly said Cole had a history of drug trafficking convictions.
Despite having a copy of Cole's California driver's license complete with a physical description and date of birth, Yant confused Cole with a Trevon Cole from Houston and California, who was seven years older, at least three inches shorter and 100 pounds lighter.
The false information on the affidavit was relied upon by the judge who authorized the nighttime raid.
But Detective Yant's own testimony convinced the seven jurors that his actions were justifiable, a Clark County coroner's jury forewoman said last week.
Shannon, who asked that her last name be withheld, said the jury never considered Yant's actions criminal because it assumed "intent" to harm was necessary for an action to be considered criminal. She said the instructions given to the jury before deliberations didn't define what could have constituted a criminal act.
"His testimony was taken in high regard," said Shannon, 35. "He was the only one who witnessed the entire thing."
No, Shannon. He was the only one who witnessed the entire thing and survived.
Let's say that a 70-year-old man who knows he has committed no serious crimes wakes up in the middle of the night this week in his darkened Las Vegas home, to the loud noise of his front door being broken down by home invaders.
He has only seconds to gather his senses as men come stampeding down the hall toward his bedroom. He manages to get on his glasses but not his hearing aid, so he can't make out what the men -- who wear dark clothes and no visible badges -- are yelling.
He is, however, a combat veteran who has shot some trap and skeet in his time. He rolls to the floor. Grabbing his loaded shotgun from under the bed, he stays on his knees, steadies his elbows on the bed and takes aim in the dim light, to which his eyes have already adjusted.
As the badly organized home invaders with malfunctioning flashlights pour from the hallway into his bedroom, peppering the walls as they accidentally discharge combat rifles on whose triggers they shouldn't even have their fingers, our home defender calmly and methodically leads his assailants, killing two and seriously wounding another by placing 12-gauge deer slugs through their heads and necks.
The remaining assailants pull back and manage to convince the resident that they're police, whereupon he surrenders to the surviving officers, who turn out to have the right house number but to have wandered one street away from the house they wanted.
Here's what I want to know:
Would our 70-year-old homeowner be left free on his own recognizance for a couple of months, pending his coroner's inquest, as killer policemen are?
At his coroner's inquest, would the seven-member jury be instructed they must find his actions either "justifiable" or "excusable," unless they believe he went to bed that night with "criminal intent" to kill those cops?
Would the jury forewoman later be likely to explain they had to find the killings justifiable because the homeowner testified he believed they had guns and he was in fear for his life? That "his testimony was taken in high regard" because "he was the only one who witnessed the entire thing"?
And, once our killer of two cops had been cleared by the coroner's inquest system, would the local district attorney be likely to wash his hands of the matter, saying, "The coroner's jury has spoken. There's nothing we can do. He's a free man"?
I don't think things would be likely to work out quite that way. Do you?
But if that's not the way things would work for a man who makes a split-second decision to kill two armed home invaders, then do our police live under and obey the same laws as the rest of us, or do Las Vegas police today enjoy special laws and protections that allow them to do things that would be considered crimes if done by the rest of us?
And if that's the case, do we still live in a free country ... or in a police state?
Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Review-Journal, and author of "Send in the Waco Killers" and the novel "The Black Arrow." See www.vinsuprynowicz.com/.