Despite costs and wrongful convictions, lawmakers OK with death penalty

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“I am angry about what happened to me. But I’m using my anger in a positive way," says Juan Melendez, who spent years on death row for a murder he didn't commit. (Photo: Michael Lyle).

Juan Melendez spent 17 years, eight months and one day on Florida’s death row for a murder he didn’t commit.

It took years and several defense attorneys before evidence was discovered to exonerate him, so Melendez sat alone in his prison cell waiting for the state to kill him.

Death never came, but the constant dread it could arrive any moment can change a man. For Melendez, those years transformed him into an activist seeking to end capital punishment nationwide. “My dream, what I pray to God everyday about, is that we can abolish the death penalty,” he said. “I am angry about what happened to me. But I’m using my anger in a positive way.”

Standing in front of social work students at UNLV Wednesday, Melendez paced back and forth throughout the classroom. Each word of his story was accompanied by large hand gestures and animated body language. He didn’t just want students to hear what he had to say, he wanted them to feel it.

Melendez is flying from city to city sharing his story, hoping to inspire efforts to end the use of capital punishment — 20 states have abolished the practice, but Nevada isn’t one of them. “The death penalty is flawed policy that just creates collateral damage,” Melendez says. “It is a law made by, and carried out by, humans. Humans make mistakes.”

Even as he was speaking, Nevada’s own effort to repeal capital punishment was inching toward death. Earlier this week Assemblyman Ozzie Fumo told Nevada Current he was informed his legislation to abolish the death penalty, Assembly Bill 149, wouldn’t even get a committee hearing before the April 12 deadline.

Assembly Judiciary Committee Chair Steve Yeager declined to comment on why the legislation wouldn’t get a hearing — a similar bill at least got a hearing in 2017 despite then Gov. Brian Sandoval being opposed to abolishing capital punishment.

Gov. Steve Sisolak, who previously told The Nevada Independent that he opposes the death penalty, declined to comment on the legislative process.

Sisolak’s office declined to respond when asked by the Current if he would considered imposing gubernatorial moratoria, which has been implemented by governors in three states to bar the practice of the death penalty.

State Sen. James Ohrenschall, who cosponsored AB 149 with Fumo, had a similarly proposed Senate Bill 246. It is also not scheduled to get a hearing.

Attempts to contact Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizarro, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, were unsuccessful.

“I’m sure (lawmakers) would be happier if this went away quietly,” said Scott Coffee, the deputy Clark County public defender. “But the death penalty is the elephant in the room. We can’t ignore it.”

Of the 30 states that have capital punishment, Nevada is one of 11 to not use it for more than a decade. There have been 1,493 executions during that time — 346 in Texas alone.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 165 people have been exonerated from death row over the same period. “It seems like a small number, but that number should be zero when you’re dealing with life and death,” Melendez says. The organization confirms one person in Nevada has been exonerated from death row.

Growing doubts about the integrity of murder convictions, combined with more awareness of  racial bias that goes into imposing the death penalty, have led to steadily declining public support for the practice over the years — the exception being a slight uptick from 49 percent in 2016 to 54 percent in 2018.

Though Melendez would love to appeal to the better angels of politicians hoping their moral compass will point them toward abolition, he said it’s the associated financial burdens that are more likely to win them over.

Such data has failed to move Nevada lawmakers. A 2017 legislative audit found it costs $500,000 more per case when the death penalty is sought, regardless of outcome.

Asked by the Current if Sisolak was worried about the costs to taxpayers, his office didn’t respond.

“Clark County is handing out (the death penalty) like it’s candy,” Coffee said. “Nevada is a hotbed for capital punishment. Clark County has more capital cases pending than any place in the country. There are 3,000 plus counties in the United State and we are No. 1 per capita in pending capital cases. As we speak, there are 60 people facing the death penalty.”

Coffee reiterated that each of these 60 cases comes with a half-million dollar additional price tag. He estimates many of the cases will be reversed — for all the people Nevada sentences to death, the state has only executed 12 people and the last time was in 2006.

Essentially, he argued, taxpayers are paying for a practice that isn’t even used.

Trying to execute someone on death row is just as costly. Attempts to hear the bill come months after Scott Dozier, an inmate requesting to be put to death, died by suicide.

Dozier was scheduled to be executed in 2017, but it was stalled due to legal challenges surrounding the type of lethal injection drugs being.

Holly Welborn, the policy director with the ACLU of Nevada, said “until the death penalty is repealed,” the state could be open to more costly lawsuits. “If another person were to ‘volunteer,’ they could be opened to future litigation,” she added.

Beyond costs, Melendez’s case highlights some of the worst practices in death penalty cases. His conviction was secured through the testimony of a jailhouse informant. It was also later discovered the attorney prosecuting him hid evidence — a confession from the real killer — that would have exonerated him.

“Every state is always at risk of executing an innocent person,” he said. “We can release innocent people. We can never, I repeat, we can never release an innocent person who we’ve killed.”

Lawmakers are fine giving compensation for those who are wrongfully imprisoned, as legislation to provide reparations for the exonerated, Assembly Bill 267, passed out of committee. Legislators tearfully listened to DeMarlo Berry, who sat in a Nevada prison 22 years for a crime he didn’t commit, and insisted on justice.

But those prosecuting Berry initially wanted death — they settled for his liberty. Berry could have easily been No. 166 in those exonerated from death row. 

Laura Martin, the executive director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, added there are multiple pieces of legislation dealing with exonerations and the guidelines of bringing new evidence — the same day lawmakers heard Berry’s story, they were presented Assembly Bill 356, which updates the process of how a person convicted of a crime can introduced new evidence. “If you have to pass a law, then there might be people currently on death row who have never seen the benefit of this law,” Martin said.

Along with arguments that capital punishment is cruel and unusual and doesn’t deter crime, Martin said it simply doesn’t “belong in any civil society.” “I don’t think any other Western nation does this,” she said.

Of all people able to abolish the death penalty, Martin thought it would have been democratic lawmakers — who claim to be progressive, control both houses and serve with a Democratic governor.

“We have a governor who is open about being deeply religious, but the legislature can’t come through ,” Martin said.

Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.

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