Friday, August 27, 2004

Shooting inquest begins Tuesday

Express Staff Writer

A coroner?s inquest scheduled to begin Tuesday will look into the shooting death of Tom Algiers, 46. Algiers was killed shortly before 3 a.m. May 16 after police responded to a 911 call made by Daniel D. Hunt, 45, from the River Run Lodge at about 2 a.m.

Hunt, 45, told police that he had been attacked by Algiers and had defended himself with a machete. Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling said when Al-giers was found in the dense woods he refused to drop a knife he was carrying. Femling said Algiers cornered two county deputies. Deputy Curtis Miller then shot Algiers twice.

Although a special multi-county task force that investigated the case determined that the shooting was justifiable homicide, Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling and County Prosecutor Jim Thomas requested Blaine County Coroner Russ Mikel hold a coroner?s inquest to dispel any public doubt.

?The average public will say the police are investigating their own,? said Ada County Coroner Erwin Sonnenberg, who will lead the inquest in Mikel?s place. ?People say a task force is not going to rule against their own people.?

Coroner?s inquests have become a common procedure for investigating police shootings in Ada County since the 1990s, when a string of police shootings had the Boise area in an uproar, said Sonnenberg.

?I made the decision that inquests needed to happen,? Sonnenberg said ?A lot of accusations stopped. People realized if they make accusations, they may be called up on the witness stand and have to verify what they?re saying.

?The biggest reason to hold an inquest is to give the public an assurance of the safety of their law enforcement, to make sure everything is operating prop-erly. It is open to the public.?

Sonnenberg will be taking over the Algiers inquest from Mikel, who has never performed an inquest and will be called as a witness at the hearing. Idaho Deputy Attorney General Jay Rosenthal will act as the prosecutor handling the ministerial tasks of presenting evidence and asking questions of witnesses.

?It is looser than a jury trial, but I control the inquest. I have the same powers as a judge,? Sonnenberg said.

A panel of eight jurors, selected from the standing jury pool, will review the facts in the case following the chronological path of the events like at a jury trial, Sonnenberg said. After deliberation, two of the jurors will be randomly selected as alternates and excused. The remaining six must make a unanimous ruling.

Sonnenberg said the jury will decide what happened, where, with whom and when.

The jury will decide whether Algiers? death was caused by criminal means and who caused it, Rosenthal said. ?The bottom line is the jury determines (the verdict),? he said.

?If they say the officer is guilty of a murder and it was not justified, I have a warrant sitting there and I sign it. Then it throws (the case) back in the prose-cutor?s lap at that point,? Sonnenberg said.

Sonnenberg said that in a coroner?s inquest if after evidence is presented the jury wants to hear more detail, they can request it.

Rosenthal said that many of the witnesses will be the same people who testified Aug 3. in a 5th District Magistrate Court preliminary hearing held for Hunt, who faces felony charges of aggravated battery and aggravated assault in connection with his altercation with Algiers. Hunt, who pleaded innocent, was bound over to 5th District Court to stand trial.

Rosenthal is the prosecutor in that case as well. Prosecution of Hunt was turned over to the Idaho Attorney General?s Office in late May due to a possible conflict of interest for Blaine County Prosecutor Jim Thomas. The trial is scheduled for Oct. 26.

Rosenthal said any information from the preliminary hearing could be reviewed during the inquest, but that a transcript of the hearing has not been com-pleted.

?If they want, they can subpoena other witnesses,? Sonnenberg said. ?If the jury says they want to hear (a taped interview) the jury gets to hear that tape. They can ask to hear the whole tape. If the jury says they would like to go to the scene, they can. Buses would be organized and they could go out there. The jury has a lot of play in this.?

At the preliminary hearing for Hunt, witnesses recalled Hunt stating that he and Algiers had been in a fight and that he believed that Algiers was dying. Autopsy reports show that Algiers had suffered multiple machete strikes to the head before he was shot.

The jury will have a chance also to ask questions about Algiers? physical condition at the time of the shooting, using information from autopsy reports to help determine whether he was a threat to police.

?The jury has to agree unanimously,? Sonnenberg said. ?The decision makes a big difference for what is perceived for the families of the deceased and the officer and his family. It sits with them for a long time. It answers a lot of questions and helps them deal with everything. Any time you have a major incident (police) policies probably change.?

Sonnenberg also said that coroner?s inquests are useful if somebody is looking at filing civil charges against the Sheriff?s Office. Information gathered from an inquest goes a long way to making decisions in civil proceedings, he said.

?It is an important fact for the county,? Sonnenberg said. ?Holding inquests can avoid spending a whole lot more money for a civil suit.?

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