'Showtime Syndrome' Strikes Las Vegas

“He made me do my job,” insisted Bryan Yant when asked to explain why he gunned down 21-year-old Las Vegas resident Trevon Cole last June in what was clearly an act of criminal homicide.

Yant, who is employed by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police as an undercover counter-narcotics detective, claimed that Cole — who was accused of selling 1.8 ounces of marijuana — “made an aggressive act toward me,” which was “enough to make me fear for my life.”

Cole’s fiance, Sequoia Pearce, offers a much different story. She maintains that Cole was cooperative, putting up his hands and saying “All right — all right” in the instant before Yant fatally shot him. At the time, Pearce — who was nine months pregnant with the couple’s child — was kneeling on the floor with a gun to her head.

Of the six-member narcotics squad involved in the late evening raid on the tiny one-bedroom apartment, Yant was the only one who claimed that Cole made a “furtive movement.” Interestingly, he was also the only one carrying an assault rifle.

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Unlike his comrades, who were armed with with department-issued handguns, the former Marine decided to bring along his personal AR-15. This isn’t to say that the co-assailants earn points for restraint, given that the entire raid was an exercise in overkill. Trevon Cole’s needless death was an outcome nearly as predictable as the result of the perfunctory coroner’s inquest, which ruled that the murder was a “justifiable” exercise of lethal force.

On three separate occasions in the weeks leading up to the June 11 raid, police “arranged to meet with Trevon in the parking lot of his apartment complex” to conduct drug buys, attorney Andre Lagomarsino told Pro Libertate. “Trevon was never armed or dangerous, and he wasn’t exactly a high-rolling dealer either, given the fact that he didn’t even have a car.”

In the hours leading up to the raid, “the police had the apartment under surveillance, and they knew that there was a pregnant woman in that room,” continues Lagomarsino. “They had already established that this guy wasn’t a threat. They had probable cause to arrest Trevon; why didn’t they simply arrange to meet him in the parking lot and cuff him, and then execute a search?”

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Nevada law doesn’t criminalize individual possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. Each of the “controlled buys” the police set up with Cole involved amounts he could legally possess. The cops tried, without success, to bait Cole into selling larger amounts.

Although the police — with the help of a camera crew from Langley Productions, which produces the execrable COPS “reality TV” series — had captured Trevon Cole selling marijuana on video, the affidavit Yant filed to obtain an arrest warrant was fatally flawed. (Remember the COPS connection; we’ll return to it anon.)

Yant misidentified the Las Vegas resident as another individual — a Houston resident with a lengthy criminal record. The two men — who had different birthdays and middle names — looked nothing like each other. Trevon, a former college football player, was roughly 100 pounds heavier and three inches taller than the individual described in the affidavit.

It’s impossible to dismiss Yant’s misrepresentation as an innocent mistake. He had all the necessary information from Cole’s California driver’s license. Rather than correctly describing the subject as a young man with no prior criminal record, Yant depicted him as a dangerous repeat offender. This, in turn, prompted a judge to approve Yant’s request for an armed, night-time raid on Cole’s apartment. Res ipsa loquitir.

When the cops invaded Cole’s apartment, the lights were out and a television offered the only illumination. In defiance of protocol, Yant — acting without backup — kicked in the bathroom door. He found Cole squatting in front of the toilet, apparently trying to dispose of a minuscule amount of marijuana.

According to the story Yant told the inquest, Cole “turned towards me, rotated his body,” and assumed a shooter’s stance. The detective was supposedly able to see all of this despite the fact that it was dark and the barrel-mounted flashlight on his rifle wasn’t working.

That account can’t be reconciled with the findings of Dr. Lisa Gavin, a medical examiner with the Clark County Coroner’s Office, who said that the physical evidence shows Cole was facing away from Yant when he was fatally shot. The bullet that killed Cole followed a downward trajectory through his cheek into his neck.

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During the inquest, Assistant District Attorney Chris Owens suggested that this was “consistent” with an accidental discharge of Yant’s rifle as he kicked in the door. However, Pearce insists that Cole had sufficient time to raise his hands and signal his compliance before Yant gunned him down. Her account actually confirms Yant’s testimony that the gunshot was a deliberate act, not an accidental discharge.

When coupled with forensic evidence indicating that Cole was shot from behind, this looks suspiciously like an execution-style murder — or at the very least, something that should be prosecuted as an act of criminal homicide. Thanks to a system designed to validate questionable use of lethal force by police, Yant may conceivably lose his job, but he won’t be put on trial.

Lagomarsino, who is preparing a lawsuit against the Las Vegas Metro Police on behalf of Cole’s family and former fiance, describes the County Coroner Inquest procedure as “a kangaroo court and a dog and pony show.” That is also the view of Don Chairez, a former Nevada District Court Judge who is a current candidate to be Clark County District Attorney. Chairez describes the typical inquest as “a search for justification of an officer’s actions.”

The inquest procedure was introduced in 1969. Since 1976, more than two hundred lethal force incidents have been examined by a seven-member jury. Only one of them was ruled “negligent” — and that decision was overturned on appeal. This isn’t a surprising result, given that the inquest procedure is designed to be collaborative, rather than adversarial: The D.A.’s office literally orchestrates the questioning with the police department prior to the hearing.

Lagomarsino observes that no cross-examination of police officers is permitted. “We were allowed to submit written questions, one at a time, to the prosecutor, but we couldn’t cross-examine Yant” or even ask follow-up questions, he told Pro Libertate. The prosecutors don’t bother to present a summation for the jury, and established procedures also permit judges to offer what Lagomarsino called “very vague” instructions to the jury.

Additionally, jury nullification would avail little in this setting, since the inquest — unlike a grand jury — cannot return an indictment. At the end of the inquest into the Trevon Cole shooting, comments Don Chairez, it appeared that the judge “was almost asking for a directed verdict.”

This wasn’t the first time a coroner’s inquest has rescued Bryan Yant. In 2002, Yant, at the time a 25-year-old street officer, shot robbery suspect Richard Travis Brown following a foot pursuit. Yant claimed that he had returned fire after Brown shot at him during the chase. Eventually Brown “buckled and fell face-first on the ground,” Yant told the inquest. Sprawled on the ground with a “wild-eyed look,” Brown supposedly pointed his gun at the officer, who unloaded the volley that killed him.

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