Survivors: No closure from death penalty

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Sara Joy Warne at her slain mother's grave. Photo credit: Sara Joy Warne

The entry in the pregnancy journal reads “Tim watched in delivery a very beautiful experience.  Baby Sara was born. We both love her very much.”

Las Vegan Sandra Devere gave birth to Sara Joy on August 17, 1983. The young bartender, known to her Clark and Bonanza high school friends by her maiden name, Sandra Pajak, would not live to see her daughter turn a year old.

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Sandra Devere with her infant, Sara Joy, shortly before Sandra’s 1984 murder.

On August 2, 1984, Richard Moran, then 30, gunned down off-duty cook Russell Rhodes, 27, and Devere, 24, as she tended bar at the Red Pearl Saloon, now the Triple Play Lounge on Decatur Blvd. Moran, who said he was on a cocaine binge, fled with the cash register.

Days later, according to court records, Moran was arrested for threatening his ex-wife, Linda Vandervort.  On August 11, after a few days in jail, Moran shot Vandervort to death and failed in an attempt to kill himself.

Moran admitted to all three murders in a videotaped confession.  He later recanted as to Vandervort’s killing.  At one point he fired his attorneys and represented himself.  The case went to the Court of Appeals which held that competency to waive constitutional rights requires greater mental ability than that required to stand trial.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed, ruling the standard for waiving the right to an attorney is no different than the standard for standing trial, that is, whether the defendant has “sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding” and a “rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him.”

In 1996, Moran became the sixth person executed in Nevada since the reinstatement of the death penalty in the early seventies, following a brief moratorium.

Metro Police Capt. Carl Fruge, a detective assigned to the case, told the Las Vegas Sun at the time:

“If you could follow the families of murder victims, you’d see the destruction that takes place. What it does to their outlooks on life, the divorces, the trauma they go through. I hope the execution will bring these families closure, but at the same time it brings it all back like it was yesterday.”

The state put 61 people to death before 1973 and has killed 12 since then.  Scott Dozier, who says he wants to be executed for the murder of Jeremiah Miller, is scheduled to become the thirteenth this week.

But does the death penalty bring families closure? Law enforcement, the public and Miller’s family surely hope that will happen with Dozier’s execution, scheduled for Wednesday.

Experts, however, say the more common outcome is the inability of families to achieve “closure” after executions – an assessment borne out in the story told by Sandra Devore’s daughter.

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Las Vegas Review-Journal clipping from Sara Joy Warne’s scrapbook, detailing benefit following mother’s murder.

‘It was like sweeping it under the rug’

Sara Joy was 12 when her mother’s killer paid for his crimes with his life.  She says a television news crew came to interview her.

“I think they were using me to support their pro-death penalty story. I didn’t really know what was going on,” she says during an interview with the Current, seated in the corner of a donut shop.  “I just knew that was going to be justice. I was all for it back then.  An eye for an eye, you know.”

The closure Sara sought remains elusive. “I’ve studied this case through and through my whole life.  It’s kinda been an obsession,” she says, pulling old photos and wrinkled newspaper clippings from a plastic grocery bag.

Does she think Moran killed her mother?

“In my humble opinion, I don’t think so. I think he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  He signed a confession when he was under anesthetics, which is unethical.  In my heart, I don’t believe it. I could be wrong.”

It turns out Richard Moran took more than Sara’s mother.  He took her identity.  And the answers to questions that haunt her today.

“My grandmother and step-grandfather lied to me and told me I was their daughter. I didn’t know about my mom until I was six.  I found a picture.  I didn’t know I had a dad, or a sister,” she says.  “It was a really tough life, the generation gap between us and all.  My grandparents sent me to ‘therapeutic’ boarding school and kicked me out of the house when I was 15. I slept next to my mother’s grave when I was homeless.”

Sara displays a newspaper clipping dated September 28, 1984 from the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The headline reads “Benefit set for child of slain woman.”  The infant in the picture is Sara.

“My mom, I mean my grandma, used to tell me I was going to get a million dollar trust fund when I turned 18.  Then it was 25.  I never got anything.  They went through it,” she says.

Sara believes her step-grandfather, Ralph T. Warne, who owned the Red Pearl Saloon and sold it shortly after the murders, profited from the crimes via insurance claims.  And she says her grandmother told her Richard Moran had applied for a job at the bar shortly before the murders.  Moran’s execution, she says, robbed her of her best chance for answers to nagging questions.

“It was like sweeping it under the rug.  It was like getting rid of it. I was supposed to get closure for this. And when I ask my grandmother she doesn’t deny it. I go ‘Did my grandfather know anything about what happened to my mother, does he know anything?’  And she goes ‘Your grandfather did a lot of things in those days we weren’t proud of.’  That’s what her answer was to me.  She’s been so aloof my whole life. Like she never would tell me anything until I came to her and she can’t lie to me.”

Warne died in 2009.  His wife, Pearl, did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this story.

“We’re civil to one another because my kid is her great-grandson.  She talks about how she lives in guilt.  She’s afraid of Hell.  I tell her just forgive yourself.  Whatever you’re holding on to, forgive yourself. I forgive you.  I forgive Richard Moran.”

The Red Pearl Saloon was a family business. Sara says her mother was filling in on her night off when she was killed.  Sara’s father, Timothy Devere, was the bar’s cook but had just quit.  Rhodes, the other murder victim, had been hired to replace Devere.

“I feel as though there wasn’t any closure because he really swore his innocence for my mother,” Sara says of Moran.  “He did not want to die for that, he felt he was being treated unjustly.”

“He’s the last person in the world I want to take sides for. I used to be for the death penalty but them suffering doesn’t change anything. What if he was innocent? And he had a family, too.  People can make amends.  They can be forgiven.”

Justice swift and sure?

Sara’s ambivalence regarding her mother’s murderer and her inability to achieve “closure” after his execution is common among family members of victims.

The mandatory appeals associated with the death penalty often drag out the process for families of victims, extending that window of time during which they are unable to ‘get on with their lives.’

The delays coupled with opposing views over the death penalty often cause schisms within families, researchers say.

Former federal public defender Franny Forsman has had a rare view from both sides – as an advocate for defendants facing death and as the “grandmother” of a murdered teen. The girl’s killer, Norman Belcher, was sentenced to death but has not been executed.

“My daughter and I pretty much raised her. My daughter dated her father,” Forsman says of Alexus Postorino, who was 15-years-old when she was killed in 2010.  “I used to call her my Lotus because lotuses grow in the muck.  She was in the middle of the muck and grew up to be a great kid.  I think the idea of closure is a pretty cruel myth.  It’s not going to get any less painful if her killer is killed. I’m not the only survivor who feels that way.  Survivors think ‘if we kill the guy we will feel better.’ I don’t think or hope that will happen.”

Defense attorney Robert Draskovich told reporters after Belcher’s sentencing that by seeking the death penalty, prosecutors guaranteed years of appeals for Belcher, who told the judge he preferred the isolation of a Death Row cell to the general prison population.

“They’ve now guaranteed decades of litigation and more strict scrutiny of the verdict. Norman Belcher knew this. And the state knew this. … He knew he’d have better housing conditions, and he’d have mandatory appeals paid for by the state. Both he and the state of Nevada were complicit in furthering the litigation of this matter,” the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported in 2016.

Forsman says it’s not uncommon, to the dismay of proponents of the death penalty, for defendants to use the sentence to their advantage and live out their lives isolated on Death Row.

“Frankly, if I were vengeful, if I wanted him to be punished, I know a lot of people who are doing life in prison.  You want to punish somebody, lock them in a cage with other convicts for the rest of their life.”

Las Vegas criminal defense attorneys Dayvid Figler and Kristina Wildeveld have managed to maneuver the halls of justice without landing a client on death row, but they’ve had a better view of its inhabitants and their victims than most.

“I’ve never actually met anyone who got “closure” from death.  They get more vengeful,” says Wildeveld.

Figler agrees.

“I can’t imagine closure to dehumanizing as “scum” worthy of “snuffing out” adds much to our role as enlightened humans,” he says.  “Every person who winds up on death row has a backstory of how they got to that point and I have never seen a purely, non-mentally ill sociopath who just kills to kill just because.”

Dozier, set to die this week, is said by his defense to have been sexually molested as a child.

Research by the University of Minnesota and the University of Texas at Austin indicates support for the death penalty is rooted in the mistaken conclusion that it provides closure for victims’ families.  The studies found that two and a half percent of those affected achieved real closure. Twenty percent said the execution offered no assistance in healing and many said they felt empty because the execution didn’t bring back the victim.

Researchers conclude that families are more likely to heal with the help of restorative justice, a therapy consisting of conversations between the murderers and the victims’ families.

“I’ve seen it heal and build strength and love, never hate and hurt.” says Wildeveld, who says she practices restorative justice whenever possible.  “Revenge and vengefulness just bring hate and anger, never closure.”

How do the men who want to lead Nevada feel about the ultimate penalty the state is about to mete out?

In 1996, State Senate candidate Steve Sisolak answered a survey by saying he favored “expanding the use of the death penalty for additional circumstances relating to murder.” Sisolak did not select the option to “eliminate the death penalty.”

Today the Democratic candidate for governor has evolved.

“Steve does not support the use of the death penalty except for in extreme cases,” said his campaign spokesperson, who did not define “extreme cases” but elaborated that Sisolak would have supported the death penalty for Stephen Paddock, who killed 58 people on the Las Vegas Strip before taking his own life.

Republican candidate Adam Laxalt did not respond to the Current’s request for comment.

Dana Gentry
Reporter | Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Gentry began her career in broadcasting as an intern at Channel 8, KLAS-TV. She later became a reporter at Channel 8, working with Las Vegas TV news legends Bob Stoldal and the late Ned Day. Gentry left her reporting job in 1985 to focus on motherhood. She returned to TV news in 2001 to launch "Face to Face with Jon Ralston" and the weekly business programs In Business Las Vegas and Vegas Inc, which she co-anchored with Jeff Gillan. Dana is the mother of four adult children, three cats, three dogs and a cockatoo.

5 COMMENTS

  1. I think the point that is not brought out in this article is that MURDER is a CRIME, and this country has laws for crimes. Death is a suitable punishment for those who commit murder, where it makes the victim’s family feel better or not; it’s the consequence for the action. The End.

    • A more appropriate punishment is life without the possibility of parole. The State need not kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong.

    • Why is death a suitable punishment for people who commit murder, though? It’s not enough to just say “this is the law” as a reason. Laws have to have reasons behind them in order to be just. So why is it just for execution to be the punishment for murder?

      To answer my own rhetorical question, people frequently point to “the need to bring closure for victims” as a reason for the death penalty. But as this article points out, we have empirical evidence that this usually isn’t true. So that’s not a good reason to have this law in place. And saying “The End” is not an actual rebuttal to any of that reasoning, or an actual argument in favor of the death penalty.

  2. I think the biggest problem with the death penalty is the ridiculously long time that it takes to actually kill the person! That is, in my opinion, the reason that people don’t feel any sense of closure.

    Why is it an “appropriate punishment” to allow these scumbags to stay in jail, eating 3 squares a day, a warm place to sleep, etc? How is that an apt punishment?

    The death penalty should be expanded to include rape, child molestation, selling or giving drugs to children. I’d even be okay with including those who willfully and knowingly attack and beat up older folks. If someone broke into my mom’s house and beat her up, not to mention other things that I shudder to even mention… they better put that person down.

    As Gramma Grampa said…murder is a crime. A heinous crime. The death penalty should not only be enforced…it should be enforced rapidly. Give the criminal their one appeal, and if they’re still found guilty, they’re dead within the week. Hell, bring back public hangings or firing squads for that kind of trash. Two in the head is a hell of a lot cheaper for the public than letting them sit on death row for a decade or more.

    • There are a number of problems with this stance, but one big one is that it assumes that the justice system does a good job of figuring out who’s actually guilty or not. That’s empirically false – since we reinstated the death penalty back in the 70s, more than a hundred people have been exonerated – proven completely innocent. And we know that a number of innocent people have been wrongly executed. If it’s a heinous crime for a private individual to kill an innocent person, isn’t it also a heinous crime when the government does it? That risk is way too high for the death penalty to be a morally workable option.

      http://www.ncadp.org/pages/innocence

      I mean, I understand that you’re qualifying your argument with “give people one appeal,” but that’s not enough. There are lots of ways a trial and direct appeal can be tainted – incompetent defense counsel, prosecutors or police hiding evidence, judges who want to look tough on crime to win re-election. The point of the extended appeals/habeas process is to be more certain in the fairness and accuracy of the outcome. If you get rid of that, you’re just making the system even more likely to falsely convict someone. And again, if “killing an innocent” is wrong when a murderer does it, it’s also wrong when the government does it.

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