Time to rethink Nevada’s death penalty?

death chamber
"By law, many items purchased for the (execution) chamber had to be very high quality such as the medical grade bed which cost approximately $70,000," says the Nevada Department of Corrections, which provided this photo.

“They said we could not obtain lethal drugs. I do not believe that is accurate.” – Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson in March 2017, testifying against a bill to abolish the death penalty

The on-again, off-again execution of Scott Dozier may be an indication that it’s time Nevada lawmakers, who appear to overwhelmingly support the death penalty, consider other options for carrying out the ultimate sentence.  But at least three legislators are calling instead to abolish the death penalty and they say there’s no alternative method they’d support.    

Dozier was originally scheduled to die in November of 2017.  That execution date was delayed because of legal wrangling over the drug protocol.

Wednesday, Clark County District Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez put the execution scheduled for Wednesday night on hold, granting (at least temporarily) a motion filed by one of the drugmakers that doesn’t want its pharmaceutical used for intentional killing.  The state Department of Corrections subsequently announced that the execution was delayed until further notice.

Nevada’s apparent lack of an acceptable execution method could be a harbinger for the more than 80 inmates awaiting execution on Nevada’s Death Row.

A new method to kill?

The state “issued 247 requests for proposals to supply these drugs required for lethal injection and received no bids from any pharmaceutical companies,” according to minutes from a legislative hearing in 2017 on an unsuccessful measure to abolish the death penalty. 

Lethal injection is by far the most popular method of execution in the United States.  It’s employed by 32 states, the U.S. military and the federal government, according to the Death Penalty Information Center , a national non-profit that provides information and analysis of issues related to capital punishment.

Electrocution is a secondary method to lethal injection in nine states – Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.   

Six states – Alabama, Arizona, California, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma and Wyoming – allow lethal gas.

Only three states – Delaware, New Hampshire and Washington – allow hangings, while Mississippi, Oklahoma and Utah can employ a firing squad.  

To kill or not to kill

Executions are costly, imprecise, and some say, immoral.  They are also on the decline in America, with a few exceptions.  

Clark County is one of the exceptions.  According to a 2016 study by Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Program, only 16 of the 3,143 counties in the United States sentenced five or more convicts to death between 2010 and 2015. Clark was one of them.  It’s also a hotbed for misconduct by overzealous prosecutors seeking death, the study says.

Clark County prosecutors won nine death cases between 2010 and 2015. No other county in the state sentenced a defendant to death during that time.

Harvard Law’s Fair Punishment study Too Broken to Fix: An In-Depth Look at America’s Outlier Death Penalty Counties, reports the Nevada Supreme Court acknowledged prosecutorial misconduct in 47 percent of the death penalty cases it reviewed on appeal, the highest percentage found in the study.   

The report says current District Attorney Steve Wolfson is keeping his pledge to reduce death penalty prosecutions, but a holdover prosecutor from his predecessor David Roger’s administration may be responsible for Clark County’s apparent attraction to seeking death.  

That one prosecutor, David Stanton, has won eight death sentences in his career, including four during Wolfson’s tenure.

The financial burden of the death penalty is a heavy one for Nevada taxpayers.  A recent legislative audit determined that on average, the decision to seek the death penalty adds about $500,000 to the cost of prosecuting a capital case, regardless of success, as compared to seeking a life sentence without the possibility of parole.  That does not include the cost of mandatory post-conviction appeals.

Three decades of research by the National Academy of Sciences culminated in a 2012 report that failed to find evidence that the death penalty is a deterrent to violent crime.   

Despite the lack of evidence that executions deter violent crime, the cost to prosecute capital cases and the difficulty in procuring the drugs to conjure up a lethal cocktail, that legislative effort last year to abolish the death penalty went nowhere.  

Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson testified that our judicial system is based on graduated punishment.

“Usually we seek the death penalty in killings involving children, police officers in the line of duty, where extreme torture or mutilation is involved, or where there are multiple decedents, ” Wolfson told members of the Assembly Judiciary Committee in March of 2017.  “If the appropriate punishment for a particular murder is life without parole, how do you punish a person who commits multiple murders?”

Republican Assemblyman Ira Hansen says he supports codifying an alternative method to lethal injection.

“Sure. Whatever it takes to do it as quickly and humanely as possible,” Hansen said in an email to the Current.

Assemblyman Ozzie Fumo, a defense attorney and member of the Assembly Judiciary committee that failed to vote on the measure told the Current  “In my opinion, any lawmaker who approves of the death penalty should have their head examined. I’m not sure what other method is out there that would not violate the 8th amendment to the United States Constitution.”

Assemblyman James Ohrenschall is a defense attorney and sponsor of the abolition bill.

“Originally, I thought we could have the votes and that maybe the governor (Brian Sandoval) would let it go on the wall without signing it,” he says.  “Then we found out he would veto and we certainly didn’t have the votes for an override.  But we had a good hearing with a lot of good testimony.”

“We had a hearing in the Assembly, just not a vote,” says bill sponsor Richard “Tick” Segerblom, a state senator who is running for Clark County Commission.

Does Segerblom think Wednesday’s last minute postponement bolsters the need to abolish the death penalty?

“Absolutely.”

The Current reached out for comment but did not hear back from candidates for governor Steve Sisolak and Adam Laxalt, candidates for attorney general Wes Duncan and Aaron Ford and Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson.

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.

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