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SAN JOSE � Following a controversial wave of open grand jury hearings, the Santa Clara County district attorney’s office is considering a new policy that would push investigations of all police-involved deaths into the public spotlight. Coroner inquests � favored in Contra Costa and Marin counties � are essentially proceedings overseen by an independent hearing officer. Selected by the coroner, the officer is usually a private attorney or retired judge who reviews the facts of the case and then determines the cause of death. There is no cross-examination of witnesses, and the hearing officer doesn’t have the authority to hand down indictments. Currently, the county holds grand jury hearings to investigate all officer-involved deaths, which the DA can request to open to the public if there is enough scrutiny. The new policy, however, could eliminate the need for these secret jury proceedings � at least that’s what retiring DA George Kennedy is hoping. “If [the coroner's office] wants to do it, it’s fine with me,” Kennedy said. “If it doesn’t work, I’ll just do my grand jury thing.” By law, the DA can call for a coroner’s inquest at any time. But the new proposal would make it a blanket policy for the county. Santa Clara County Sheriff Capt. Robert Dixon, who has managed the coroner’s office for the past year, sat in on two recent Contra Costa inquests and one in Marin County. He liked what he saw. “This is just a very informal hearing,” Dixon said, noting that members of the public, as well as the DA, can participate in the process by writing their questions down on a piece of paper and handing it to the hearing official, who decides whether they are pertinent to the investigation. Dixon points out that Contra Costa County has seen a drop in its wrongful-deaths lawsuits since adopting a coroner inquest policy. But, more importantly, Dixon said he appreciates that the process is “non-confrontational.” “It’s just going up there and telling your story,” he said. “The hearing officer just wants to know the facts of the case.” After gathering and reviewing police, witness, autopsy and toxicology reports, it is up to the presiding officer to determine the cause of death � natural causes, suicide, death at the hands of another or an accident. The DA must then decide whether there is criminal liability and whether to pursue charges. While the buzz around the county administration building has generally been positive, there are some skeptics who think coroner inquests � like open grand jury hearings � could be just a big waste of time. “It comes down to the people involved,” said Andrew Schwartz, a Walnut Creek attorney overseeing the civil lawsuit for the family of a Vietnamese woman killed by San Jose police in 2003. If these inquests are used as a “perfunctory proceeding,” done to let a few people vent, Schwartz feels the process would be pointless. But “if you are going to take a hard look at something, [then it's] just fine,” he said. Schwartz, a partner with Casper, Meadows, Schwartz & Cook who has sat in on several coroner inquests in Contra Costa County, also expressed concern that attorneys are not allowed to cross-examine witnesses during these hearings. He also questioned whether coroner officials, who often work side-by-side with police, could be objective. Talk of the new policy comes less than two years after Kennedy took the unprecedented step of opening up grand jury hearings in a couple of high-profile civilian deaths at the hands of law enforcement officers. The coroner’s inquest proposal was brought forward a few months ago by members of the San Jose Police Officers’ Association, which endured intense public scrutiny in 2003 after the shooting death of a 25-year-old Vietnamese woman who brandished a vegetable peeler at officers responding to a routine call. Police said the peeler looked like a cleaver and shot the woman dead less than a minute after arriving at her home. The killing outraged the local Vietnamese community, and Kennedy, faced with mounting public pressure, decided to open the case’s grand jury hearing. The officer involved was eventually cleared after an eight-day public hearing. San Jose Police Sgt. Don DeMers, president of the police officers’ association, remembers how politicized those jury proceedings were, recalling that family and friends of the victim marched into the courtroom wearing shirts with handwritten messages condemning the officer’s actions. These types of outbursts could sway the jurors’ final decision, DeMers said, explaining why the police association was not in favor of open grand juries. With coroner inquests, DeMers pointed out, officers can lay down the facts without fear of an indictment. Santa Clara is hoping to mirror the system that has been in place in Contra Costa since the 1980s, which local officials say works smoothly. “I like the way we do things,” said Contra Costa DA Bob Kochly. “We simply found it was beneficial to have a public airing of the facts.” Chief Assistant DA Karyn Sinunu agreed and said coroner inquests would be a good way to “showcase” the dangers police officers face and will help give the public a better understanding of the work cops do. “The public is hungry for knowledge about these cases,” Sinunu said. “I am looking at this as a best-practices issue. I think it’s a very good fit at this point in time.” As a further check to the coroner inquests, the DA could choose to hold a grand jury hearing if he or she feels there “was a failure to present reasonable, complete evidence,” Sinunu said. Holding both a grand jury hearing and a coroner’s inquest would likely be rare, Sinunu predicts, adding that “in 99 percent of these cases there is no criminal liability.” Of course, there is always the exception. In July 2004, a grand jury indicted a state drug agent for shooting an unarmed man during a chase in Santa Clara, in what is thought to be the county’s first indictment of an officer in more than 30 years. Law enforcement officials around the county say they welcome the chance to open the investigative process up to the public. “It isn’t like we have anything to hide,” DeMers said. San Jose Police Chief Rob Davis agreed. “There are no cover-ups,” he said. “The facts are what they are.” Police chiefs around the county voted unanimously last month to support the coroner’s inquest policy, details of which are currently being discussed by County Counsel Ann Ravel and members of the DA and coroner’s office. “It’s a clean process,” Davis said. “We can get rid of the politics and listen to the facts. � I believe the community deserves to have confidence in its police departments.”

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