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Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Inquest into Erik Scott's Death - Day 1

I've been watching the coroner's inquest into the shooting death of Erik Scott for the past two days. What follows is my impression of the events of the first day of testimony.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have to admit that I am a former employee of Costco Wholesale, and I used to work at the Summerlin location where Erik Scott was shot to death by police officers on July 10, 2010. However, at the time of Erik Scott's death, I had not worked for Costco Wholesale for over a year, although I personally know many employees who were there that day.

Having admitted this, I have no skin in this particular game, as they say, and my initial impressions of the event were formed by the wildly conflicting second-hand accounts I got via text message in the hours after the shooting. Indeed, for a couple of hours after the shooting, I was under the impression that the person who had been shot might have been an employee of Costco Wholesale!

That Erik Scott had some kind of argument with store employees in Costco Wholesale has been established. That the police were called because Erik Scott had a legally-licensed weapon in his possession is also an established fact. That the store evacuation that led to Erik Scott's confrontation with the police was initiated by the police is also an established fact.

The question is whether the shooting of Erik Scott just outside the entrance of Costco Wholesale was justified, excusable, or criminal. A justified shooting means that the police acted in an appropriate manner, and their shooting of Erik Scott was necessary because of the circumstances of the situation. An excusable shooting means that the police did not act appropriately but that the circumstances of the situation excuse the shooting. A criminal shooting means that the police acted in a completely inappropriate manner that resulted in a needless death and that criminal charges may be forthcoming.

It's important to note that the coroner's inquest is not a trial, and its findings do not constitute a legal verdict. The coroner's inquest is nothing more than a court-administered inquiry into a police-involved shooting that resulted in a death. The resulting report may or may not lead to further legal proceedings or department action, but the purpose of the inquest is to gather information in a legal and organized manner.

The inquest opened with the testimony of the medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Erik Scott. She detailed the number and placement of the shots that killed him. Turns out he was shot twice in the front of his body and five times in the back of his body. One bullet even hit him just below a buttock, traveled upward, and lodged itself in his lower chest.

Unlike what we see on television police dramas, the medical examiner expressly stipulated that she could not speculate from this information about what Erik Scott was doing at the time he was shot or what the officers were doing at the moments that they shot him. We got no 3-D, computer-generated simulation of the event, showing the trajectories of the bullets and essentially re-enacting the event. So much for our "CSI"-enhanced expectations.

The medical examiner also detailed the level of pharmaceutical chemicals in Erik Scott's bloodstream at the time of his death. Apparently, Erik Scott had very high levels of morphine and xanax in his system, and the levels of these chemicals and their associated by-products indicated to the medical examiner that Erik Scott had developed a high tolerance for these drugs by ingesting them over a long period of time. She also testified that she would characterize these levels of chemicals in Erik Scott's bloodstream as being enough to impair him.

After her testimony, the district attorneys called three different doctors to the stand. The first was a "concierge" doctor who had not treated Erik Scott in over a year. She testified that Erik Scott had emailed her repeatedly, asking for prescriptions for hydrocodone but refusing to make office visits so she could examine him in person. She also testified that Erik Scott cited "financial reasons" for ceasing to be a patient of hers.

The second doctor was a "pain specialist" who testified that Erik Scott was clearly addicted to pain-killers. This doctor apparently tried to treat Erik Scott's addiction but later ended his treatment of Erik Scott. Interestingly, this doctor admitted, in light of what happened to Erik on July 10th, that he has reservations about having ended his caregiving relationship with the deceased. This doctor admitted that he wonders if he should have done more to directly address what he saw as Erik Scott's continuing addiction to pain medication.

The third doctor also treated Erik Scott for addiction to pain medication. He testified that Scott was responding to his treatment, and this doctor believed that Scott was no longer addicted to medication because they had started a treatment regiment that actually addressed Scott's real pain, which was apparently the result of both an accident during his time in the military and an automobile accident earlier this year.

The day's final testimony came from a "demo lady" named Colleen. She testified that she was an eyewitness to Erik Scott getting shot. She was walking out of the exit when she saw Erik Scott being confronted by a police officer. She said that the police officer told Scott to "get on the ground" but Scott did not comply with these commands. Instead, according to her, Scott at first just stared at the officer. Then Scott reached behind his back and pulled out a firearm and pointed it at the officer. At this point, the officer shot Erik.

Colleen then testified that she didn't see any subsequent shots or actions because the officer dropped something after he fired that first shot, and this object hitting the ground caught Colleen's attention. Then, because of the shot being fired, Colleen turned around and ran back into the warehouse and hid behind the membership desk.

This is blockbuster testimony. Its simplicity and status as eyewitness testimony makes it hard to refute. But it's also incomplete and it lacks context.

It seems clear to me that the District Attorney's office has a strategy at play. They apparently want to paint a background portrait of Erik Scott as an impaired addict who acted irrationally on the day he was shot by the police.

They have strong evidence, and they may in fact be right that Erik Scott's own actions are to blame for his death. The issue isn't whether or not Scott had a right to carry his licensed firearm. In fact, he does have a right to carry his firearm, except that Costco Wholesale is private property and they have the right to restrict the possession of firearms on their property.

But I can't help sympathizing with Erik Scott's father, who has been publicly stating that he feels his son was murdered and that the police are covering up clear evidence of this fact. The absence of direct video footage and the circumstances of that absence would arouse anyone's suspicions, no matter how much evidence Costco Wholesale provides showing that the equipment was faulty beforehand and was in the process of getting repaired.

The strategy of portraying his son as an impaired addict must be infuriating and painful to Bill Scott. The testimony of the doctors and the medical examiner must fill him with rage that they are attacking the character of his son. This is perfectly natural. Erik Scott's death was a tragic mistake.

What remains to be seen is whether or not Erik or the police should shoulder the majority of the blame for his death. My own feeling is that this tragedy is the result of a cascade of bad decisions and mistakes and misunderstandings from all of the parties involved, including Erik Scott himself. I'm just not sure that anything he did was deserving of the use of deadly force.

The issue of whether or not the coroner's inquest process should be changed is still an open question. I see the inquest as a proper first step in the investigation of a police-involved death. But it's important to note that this process is only a first step. It's what happens afterward that matters.


4 comments:

  1. Hey, JJ - Rick Loxton in da house.....

    Cascade of bad decisions on BOTH parties? What did the cops do wrong? I have been watching from afar, as I go daily to lvrj.com for my SoNev news fix. Did they not identify themselves? Did they not make several requests for him to disarm and submit? Did he not draw a weapon on an officer?

    What it is that the cops are covering up? This whole thing stinks. Stinks for the dude, dude's family, and the cop(s) that shot him. But there was no vigilante mentality here. This was no Mulholland Falls. The second Scott raises a firearm towards a sworn officer that officer has a duty to disarm him by any means. As for bullet wounds front and back - wounded guys can fire a gun, too.

    So much for my 30,000 ft view. This could go like '12 Angry Men' and if the right questions are asked it will show that maybe the cops are wrong. Doubt it, though.

    Side note: THere was a vaguely similar incident out here (not my buildin, though):
    http://www.startribune.com/local/east/103403939.html?elr=KArksUUUoDEy3LGDiO7aiU

    Side note 2: Didn't know that Curly was reincarnated as a Metro cop:

    http://www.lasvegassun.com/news/2010/sep/23/erik-scott-day2/

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  2. Thanks for your comments, Rick.

    I just have some misgivings about how the situation was handled from the start. Did the cops need to be called? I know that Erik Scott had "destroyed merchandise" but I haven't seen any evidence that he did anything worse than any other member does on a daily basis in every warehouse in the company.

    And, yes, he got surly with Costco employees, but surly is par for the course in that business.

    In the testimony thus far, it's been mentioned that Erik Scott was never actually asked to leave the store, and he was never actually told that he had to take his gun out of the store. He was merely told of Costco policy regarding firearms, and then everyone backed off.

    Also, no one told Erik Scott that the police had been called.

    In my experience, whenever I had to deal with a confrontational member, backing off was a sign that the encounter with the member was over. Instead, I engaged with the member until they left the store. And in the few times I had to call the police (or at least threaten to) I told the member I was doing so, which usually served to defuse the situation, at least to a point where the threat of violence ended.

    I agree with you that as soon as Erik raised a firearm towards the police, then they were justified in shooting him. As far as I've been able to figure out, people with CCW's are taught what to do when confronted by police, and holding your weapon out to them is NOT advised.

    But every time I see a shot of Erik Scott's family, particularly his dad, my heart goes out to them. They are caught in an impossible position, and their pain must be endless. As you said, this whole situation sucks for everyone involved.

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  3. I've taken a CCW course and you are indeed told what to do when cops ask you to pt down your weapon.

    As for dealing with an unstable-appearing person with a gun, I think that the employees did as well as could be expected under that kind of stress. In fact I would almost tend to believe that telling him the cops were en route could set him off right there. Everybody loses.

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  4. The imminent danger argument is almost persuasive. And, like I said, I wasn't there, so I can't really gauge how threatening Erik Scott appeared to be. So anything I say should be taken as nothing more than armchair quarterbacking at
    this point.

    But I've been in those situations where personal & public safety has become an issue, and I recognized that having an unresolved interaction with a hostile person actually created more uncertainty than active engagement.

    I'm not saying that the employees involved should have taken Erik into custody or physically forced him to leave. I'm saying that a clear enunciation of the circumstances would maybe have led to another, less tragic outcome.

    Let me reiterate: the evidence thus far suggests that Erik Scott held a weapon out to police who had guns pointed at him, so it seems clear
    that no one but Erik is to blame for his death.

    I'm just engaging in a little re-imagining of the situation to explore the likelihood of a different outcome. That's all.

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