Is this the year Nevada ends the death penalty?

death chamber
Nevada's execution chamber (Nevada Department of Corrections photo)

Criminal justice advocates are optimistic this might be the year Nevada abolishes the death penalty.

The Assembly Judiciary Committee on Wednesday introduced a bill that would remove the option to sentence someone to death. Assembly Bill 395 would also change the sentence of all current death row inmates to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

The legislative effort is being led by Democratic Assemblyman Steve Yeager, who has spearheaded many of his party’s recent criminal justice reforms.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Legislative Building, Senate Bill 228 would similarly abolish the death penalty but does not address those currently on death row. That bill, sponsored by Democratic state Sen. James Ohrenschall, was introduced on March 15 and has not been scheduled for a hearing.

Yeager and Ohrenschall could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

If either bill is scheduled for a hearing, that alone would mark progress for death penalty opponents, who were disappointed by legislative inaction last session.

Two death penalty abolition bills were introduced during the 2019 Legislative Session. Neither received a hearing.

But death penalty opponents believe they will have the opportunity this year to make their case.

“We are very confident we will see some movement in this legislative session,” says Mark Bettencourt, project director at the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty. “We believe there is a pathway for abolition to happen. There are always pitfalls. It can be an emotional subject — it is, obviously. But I think as we are evaluating what works and what doesn’t work as a society, this is definitely something … where alternatives are better.”

NCADP unsuccessfully pushed for the death penalty to be included as a topic in the special legislative sessions held last summer, arguing that abolition would save the state millions. Death penalty cases are long and costly to defend, and in Nevada there are additional legal hurdles related to the state’s ability to purchase lethal injection drugs.

Bettencourt says that financial argument should carry more weight this year, as the state grapples with the financial uncertainty of the pandemic’s lingering economic impact.

He also sees the death penalty as the “crown jewel of inequity” within the criminal justice system. Addressing inequity is something Nevada Democrats have emphasized in their campaigns and legislative efforts.

Systemic racism, bias against the poor and indigent, police misconduct, lack of access to mental health services — all of these are “very, very present” in death penalty cases, argues Bettencourt.

“If we can begin to deconstruct this, we can start to look at all the other things that affect folks.”

Public support for the death penalty has fallen over time. NCADP published a summary of a poll of 500 likely Nevada voters finding that a majority preferred life imprisonment over the death penalty for someone convicted of first-degree murder.

AB385 was introduced on the same day Virginia became the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty. Gov. Ralph Northam signed legislation after touring a correctional facility.

Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office declined to state his current personal opinion of the death penalty or comment on the possibility of legislative action this session. If the Legislature were to pass a bill abolishing the death penalty, Sisolak could sign it, veto it or take no action and allow the bill to passively become law.

“As is the case with all other bills or bill drafts going through the legislative process, the Governor will review and evaluate any legislation that may come before him,” read the office’s emailed statement in its entirety.

The first-term governor has been inconsistent in his position on the death penalty in the past.

While on the campaign trail in 2017, he told The Nevada Independent he would veto a bill that abolished the death penalty outright, saying he believes capital punishment might be necessary in extreme cases. As an example, he mentioned Stephen Paddock, the man who had killed 58 people and wounded hundreds more at the Route 91 Harvest festival on the Las Vegas Strip just one month earlier. (Paddock died by suicide, so no trial or sentencing ever took place.)

But Sisolak also said he was personally opposed to the death penalty because of the outsized cost of death penalty cases on states, the possibility of wrongful deaths, and for religious reasons. Sisolak is Catholic.

Nevada last executed someone in 2006.

However, there are dozens of people on death row at Ely State Prison. At the prison, a $860,000 execution chamber approved by the 2015 Legislature and completed in 2016 sits unused.

The closest the state has gotten to using its new execution chamber was in 2017, during the high-profile case of Scott Dozier. Dozier was a convicted murderer who halted his appeals process and wanted to die. However, his scheduled execution was delayed by a legal battle over the drugs to be used in his execution. That battle ended with Dozier dying by suicide in early 2019.

The legal question of what drugs Nevada can use in the lethal injection process remains unanswered.

April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. April currently serves on the board of the Society of Professional Journalists Las Vegas pro chapter. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, two children and three mutts.