LAS VEGAS >> Charges including involuntary manslaughter were dropped today against a former Las Vegas police officer accused of using an unapproved chokehold in the death of an unarmed man following a chase out of a casino last year.
Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson said he sought dismissal of the case because a grand jury last week refused to indict the former officer, Kenneth Christopher Lopera, in the death of 40-year-old Tashii Farmer Brown, who was from Hawaii.
Prosecutors will in coming weeks publicly air in a non-court venue “very similar if not the exact same evidence” that was presented in secret to grand jurors, Wolfson said.
The case spawned community protests and a federal excessive force and wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of Brown’s children that is pending.
The dismissal of state charges was hailed by Lopera’s legal and union representatives, who had sent to the grand jury in recent months evidence that Brown died of cardiac arrest and methamphetamine intoxication, not a chokehold.
That was to rebut a Clark County coroner finding last year that Brown’s death was a homicide resulting from “asphyxia due to police restraint,” with an enlarged heart and methamphetamine in Brown’s system as “significant contributing conditions.”
“We’re happy the DA finally recognized the weaknesses in the case and did the right thing,” said David Roger, a former elected district attorney in Las Vegas who represented Lopera on behalf of the Las Vegas Police Protective Association.
Andre Lagomarsino, attorney for Brown’s mother, Trinita Farmer, said he’ll ask the FBI to open a criminal civil rights investigation against Lopera, who was dismissed from the Las Vegas police force last September following an internal affairs probe that found he violated department use-of-force policies.
“What about Tashii Farmer (Brown) posed a threat from the moment Kenneth Lopera encountered him to the moment he squeezed the life out of him?” Lagomarsino said outside the courtroom. “When somebody is on their back with their hands up, what makes you think you can Taze somebody? When somebody is not resisting, what makes you think you can beat them up and choke them?”
Video from Lopera’s body camera and casino security views showed Lopera using a stun gun on Brown seven times, punching him more than 10 times and putting him in what police called an unapproved chokehold for more than a minute.
Lagomarsino characterized Brown’s mother and family as suffering during the long and inconclusive state court legal process.
Lopera had been the first Las Vegas police officer to face a manslaughter charge since 1990 in a city where police shootings and uses of force drew criticism and led to reform recommendations in 2012 from the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.
The former officer could have faced up to eight years in prison if he had been convicted of involuntary manslaughter and oppression under color of office.
“Prosecutions should be made in public so there’s transparency,” Lagomarsino said. “From the community standpoint, it’s never in the best interest of transparency to do things in secret.”
Lopera has never testified about Brown’s death. Police union official Steve Grammas said Lopera, now 32 and living in Wood Ridge, New Jersey, will not take part in the public airing of the case.
Such oversight proceedings were created by county law in 2013 to replace coroner’s inquests following deaths of people during encounters with police. Officers had sued to stop inquests, arguing that they were being subjected to unconstitutional questioning that could lead to criminal charges.
Las Vegas NAACP President Roxann McCoy, who met this week with Wolfson, credited the district attorney with taking the case to the public. But she said she also wants the FBI to investigate whether Brown’s civil rights were violated.
Brown grew up in Hawaii, where records show he was convicted of assaulting his girlfriend and was released from prison in January 2016. He pleaded guilty in February in Las Vegas to misdemeanor driving under the influence.
Brown was a father of two children in Hawaii and lived with his mother in Las Vegas, where he had a business selling shoes, hats and clothing, according to Tynisa Braun, a cousin in Honolulu.