Return to the referring page.
Photo: Ron Cornell

Las Vegas SUN

Today: March 22, 2006 at 7:43:39 PST

Tom Gorman on murder victims' families enduring the painfully slow process of investigation and adjudication

In Las Vegas, the wheels of criminal justice can take the families of murder victims down a long, excruciating journey. Keith Sargent's 84-year-old mother was killed inside her home three months ago, and Metro Police homicide detectives are still waiting for all of the forensic evidence to be processed. So, with no suspects identified, the detectives have jumped forward to newer cases.

This is understandably driving Sargent to distraction. He calls and writes cops to make sure the investigation into his mother's killing doesn't fall through the cracks. The cops tell me Sargent needs to be patient.

Ron Cornell's 16-year-old son was shot and killed outside his family's home in 1998. Unlike what happened in Sargent's case, a suspect was identified the day of the shooting. The suspect - a neighbor - fled the country, and when he returned in 2000, was arrested. But he still hasn't been taken to trial, six years later. The holdup in this case isn't due to the investigation, but because of legal maneuvering and congested courts.

You'd think this would be driving Cornell to distraction. But he has directed his initial anguish into constructive energy by campaigning for victims' rights.

This is law and order, Las Vegas style, where victims' families struggle to cope with a clogged and underfunded criminal justice bureaucracy.

"Between 'CSI' and all the other cop shows on TV, victims have a misconception about how murder investigations work," said Elynne Greene, who works at Metro as a victims' advocate. "What they do in 45 minutes on TV can, in reality, take weeks or months."

Every step of the justice journey, from the crime lab to the criminal courts, is clogged. That frustrates Sargent, whose mother, Dorothy, was found killed Dec. 9 inside the home where she lived alone. It was the home where Keith grew up, and I wrote about him in December when he gathered his boyhood belongings.

"It's been more than three months and still we don't have any forensics results," Sargent said of police efforts to process DNA, blood and other evidence taken from his mother's house. "Does it take this long for all murder investigations to begin?"

Homicide Sgt. Mike Thompson said he sympathized with Sargent, but that "if a murder has slim or next-to-no leads, and the same detectives get another murder that has leads and things to follow up, you have to work your freshest case, and then go back to the other one. Detectives have to prioritize their investigations.

"If we get something back from forensics," Thompson said of the Sargent murder, "we'll give it everything we've got. We're waiting for forensics to see where the next thrust of our investigation goes."

Greene, who was hired at the victims' advocacy office 13 years ago, said she doesn't fault Sargent for being upset.

"As time passes (after a killing), one of two things happens to the family: They either realize they don't have any fight or energy left, or they get an even better picture of how the system works," she said.

"It's in those cases that they come to terms with the situation, get past their incredible anger and bitterness and learn to cope in a more healthy way."

Elynne told me I should meet Ron Cornell. His son, Joey, was shot to death on July 16, 1998. The suspect was a neighbor, whose own son was suspected of assaulting Joey's younger sister. Prosecutors say the feud between the two families turned fatal.

On Tuesday, I tracked Cornell down at the Sawyer State Office Building, where he was listening to legislators discuss the parole, probation and pardoning of criminals. He wanted to make sure that victims' families don't get the short end of the stick if the laws are amended.

"Victims' families are beat up and pounded on by the system, and we have no choice but to deal with it," he said.

Cornell said police "won't tell Keith what they're doing on his case because it might jeopardize it."

"That's what happened to me. I wasn't getting any answers, and I was so mad I was screaming at them."

Cornell eventually collected his wits but nonetheless pestered investigators for answers and updates on his son's case. He said Sargent should breathe down the cops' necks every week or so to check on progress on his mother's case. "He needs to be civil," he said.

"He should ask what he can do to help them. But he has to stay on them and be tough."

The arrest of Joey's suspected killer triggered a day of jubilation, Cornell said. But his patience is being tested again, waiting for a trial that still hasn't begun because of myriad logistical and legal hurdles.

Cornell said he has leaned heavily on family, friends and fellow church members, but has especially come to depend on the support of families of other murder victims.

"They haven't walked in my shoes - we all react differently - but we're walking the same journey," Cornell said.

Three months ago, Keith Sargent began the journey.

Tom Gorman's column runs Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. He can be reached at 259-2310 or at

Return to the referring page.
Photo: Ron Cornell
Las Vegas SUN main page

Questions or problems? Click here.

All contents copyright 2005 Las Vegas SUN, Inc.