There has been a good deal of publicity and media coverage regarding issues in Albany County and the officer-involved shooting there last year. Members of the public have expressed outrage at the death of Robbie Ramirez and communicated a loss of faith in the system that decided behind closed doors not to prosecute Sheriff’s Deputy Derek Colling.
The complications, uproar and distrust perhaps could have been avoided, or at least mitigated, if a proper coroner inquest into the matter had been held. Yet, my experience as a coroner suggests that the public is largely unaware of what an inquest is, or that Wyoming law gives the coroner the authority to pursue one.
The best definition of an inquest I’ve found comes from Paul MacMahon’s 2015 article ‘The Inquest and the Virtues of Soft Adjudication’ published in Yale Law & Policy Review: “An inquest is neither a prosecution nor a lawsuit, but is an inquisitorial proceeding aimed at establishing the truth. It can contribute to accountability for wrong-doing but is not directly intertwined with criminal process.” (Paul MacMahon, ‘The Inquest and the Virtues of Soft Adjudication’, 33 Yale Law & Policy Revue, 275, 291-293, 2015)
Every Wyoming coroner can do an inquest on any case and around five have been completed in various counties across Wyoming in the past few years, so this is not an unheard of procedure.
So what can be the benefit of doing an inquest? As an example, we had an officer involved shooting in Riverton in January of this year that involved the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives — better known as the ATF — and the Riverton Police Department. The same day it happened, my office released a media notice that we would do a public inquest in the case, as the policy of this office is that a public inquest will be held in any officer-involved shooting in Fremont County. One of the traditional reasons for the existence of the coroner’s office, as established generations ago, is to have a transparent independent investigation into a death if needed.
The decision of when and if to do an inquest rests with the individual county coroner, and there are varying opinions on doing them, but the Laramie case, and another case in Casper, that are currently having civil issues, are good examples of why they should be done. And that is on top of the other cases nationally that have made the news.
In Laramie, the county attorney convened a grand jury, which was one of her only options for ‘outside’ review. But that process is not public, and the public and family reaction to that should have been anticipated. Law enforcement agencies like the Division of Criminal Investigation will also do an investigation, but let’s face it; both are ‘within the system’ and not generally viewed as unbiased by the public. My feeling is that anytime the government uses deadly force on a citizen, there should be a public transparent review, which is exactly what an inquest was designed for.
An inquest is not an adversarial proceeding, but a presentation of the evidence and investigations to three independent members of the public, who as a jury decide manner and cause of death and may comment or rule as to justification or other aspects of a case.
I have the support of our local law enforcement on this, as they realize that regardless of the outcome all parties may benefit from a public examination. The county attorney here was not pleased that we planned one, and actually issued his opinion prior to the completion of an autopsy, or DCI finishing their investigation. That certainly did not contribute to the perception of objectivity.
County attorneys decide if an act warrants prosecution, they do not rule on the manner and cause of a death. ATF also was not cooperative, but under the law, I do not need their or the county attorney’s permission or approval to perform my statutory obligation as coroner.
As part of our job for that case we were also in frequent contact with the family involved, in hopes of mitigating the questions and issues they had, which may be resolved by such transparency of process. The family in the case was present for the whole proceeding, and in our meeting after the inquest they expressed satisfaction with the process and were grateful for the open and unbiased presentation of the facts. It does not make the loss any easier, but insures that all suspicions of a cover-up are handled.
An open and public process serves both the officers if they are in the right or the deceased if officers are in the wrong, and an independent jury makes the ruling, not me or anyone else from within the system. That independence and accountability in investigating a death is a main reason why the coroner’s office exists, and always has been.
I would note that the “tricky situation” in Laramie under the Local Government Liability Pool — Albany County’s insurer who reportedly threatened to drop coverage if county officials spoke on the case — may also have been lessened, as they should not be able to penalize or prevent an elected official from doing what they are statutorily authorized to do. It’s too late for the Albany case, but my opinion is that a lot of the controversy could have been avoided, perhaps not eliminating civil action but certainly resolving the issue of transparency had there been a public deposition of the information. That is what an inquest is for.
The coroner is not law enforcement, nor part of the judicial system. This was confirmed in a recent Wyoming Supreme Court decision regarding an inquest in Teton County. Neither law enforcement nor the judicial system controls an inquest under Wyoming statutes. It also puts a grave responsibility on the coroner to insure that a fair jury is selected, and a thorough process is followed.
We have extensive detailed procedures developed in Fremont just for such a case. That is also why our case from January took until April 5, 2019 to complete. Being thorough takes time. Doing an inquest in an officer-involved shooting can be one of the most complicated things a coroner will do in their career, but pursuing truth is not always meant to be easy.
A public inquest is also the only exception to the strict coroner confidentiality law passed in 2011. Although we will present in a public forum, we still cannot directly release to the public confidential documents themselves, unless authorized by statute. Once completed, however, the law requires we file the inquest transcript and evidence with the Clerk of District Court, after which it is subject to their release rules and can be requested from them. Anyone can go to the Clerk of District Court, or the Wyoming State Archives where the records eventually end up, and get inquest transcripts going back to the Wyoming Territory years, if you want – they’re public records once we file them.
My policy to always do an inquest in these types of cases is not just my idea – Montana coroner statutes, for example, require an inquest in any officer-involved shooting.
I have been following the Albany case throughout, as it is a good justification for what I do in Fremont. Some other county agencies and officials consider the inquest “antiquated” for modern times, but just because a process is old does not mean it does not still have value. We don’t do inquests as often anymore, and some of the reasons for their use have changed from historic times, but, especially in these cases, they are an important tool that still can serve the public interest. Our job is to get to the truth of the matter, regardless of appearances, and insure accountability for all parties involved, whether it is the state or the deceased.