Legislature hears first bill to abolish the death penalty

Time, ladies and gentlemen, time
Assembly Judiciary Committee Chair and abolition bill sponsor Steve Yeager testifying during a hearing on the abolition bill last month.

For the first time since 2017, Nevada lawmakers began wrestling with the question on whether Nevada should get rid of capital punishment.

In Wednesday’s hearing for Assembly Bill 395, which would abolish the death penalty in Nevada and convert current death sentences to life without the possibility of parole, Las Vegas Democratic Assembly Judiciary Chair Steve Yeager, the legislation’s chief sponsor, said it is time.

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

“We need to come together as Nevadans to evaluate whether the death penalty is working and whether it should remain part of Nevada’s justice system,” Yeager said. 

Emotions ran high in a nearly four-hour hearing on abolishing the death penalty that delved into racial disparities, the high costs of capital cases going to trial, concerns about wrongful convictions, the lengthy time period between sentencing and execution, and the overall moral implications of capital punishment.

Many supporters of the bill explained Nevada’s history of racism has resulted in more Black and brown people being incarcerated. 

“Most in the Legislature will know the state’s nickname, ‘The Mississippi of the West,’ due to the combination of Jim Crow-style segregation that disenfranchised Black Las Vegans and heavy handed policing in the 1980s up until 2015.” said Dr. Tyler Parry, an assistant professor of African American studies at UNLV. “Systemic racism throughout Nevada has led to the disproportionate representation of African Americans in Nevada’s carceral system in prison, jails and on probation and parole.” 

He said it has also resulted in racial disparities on the state’s death row. 

Of the 57 people currently on death row, 28 are white, 20 are Black, seven are Hispanic, and two Asian American Pacific Islander. While Black people make up about 9 percent of the total population, they are 35 percent of current death row inmates. 

Four prosecutors from District Attorneys offices across the state, including Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson, testified against the bill. 

They spent much of their time pushing back against the notion that capital punishment is too costly, and addressing concerns raised about those wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death. 

No lawmaker asked any of the prosecutors opposing the bill about — nor did any of them explain — the racial disparities in Nevada’s death row inmates. 

Wolfson said Clark County has sought the death penalty sparingly and it should remain an option for “the worst of the worst.”

“The events of 1 October and the recent tragedies of Colorado and Georgia reinforce this belief,” Wolfson said. “If the killer in the 1 October tragedy had not cowardly taken his own life, I would have not hesitated to have sought the death penalty in that case and I would have personally prosecuted that killer.”

Scott Coffee, a public defender in Clark County, said that because of the high costs associated with bringing capital cases to trial, rural counties were less likely to pursue those cases. 

“Does this mean a person in the rurals, who we can assume in most instances because of our population will be white, can do the same crimes as someone in Southern Nevada, who for the sake of argument we can assume is Black, and receive a different sentence or a different charge against them?” Assemblywoman Shondra Summers-Armstrong, D-Las Vegas, asked Coffee.

The answer, he said, was yes.

Several of the prosecutors emphasized lawmakers need to think about victims in capital cases and their families when considering the legislation.

During testimony, family members of murder victims gave tear-filled testimony both for and against the bill. 

Summers-Armstrong asked Wolfson if Clark County had ever pursued a death penalty case against the wishes of a victim of a crime.

“I believe we probably have filed notices when the families wished us not to, but the family input is just that. It’s input,” Wolfson said. “It doesn’t control our decision because our ethical obligation and moral obligation is to seek justice in a particular case.”

Coffee argued the death penalty as a whole has been ineffective in Nevada.

“If we are promising people that justice of the death is coming, we’ve made a false promise,” he said. “We are not carrying out the death penalty.”

Since 1977 when Nevada reinstated the death penalty, there have been 161 people sentenced to death. Only 12 have been executed while 23 have died while waiting. Another 60 inmates have been removed from death row.

Nevada hasn’t executed anyone since 2006. The state tried, and failed, to execute Scott Dozier in 2017. A legal battler of the drugs being used to kill Dozier resulted in the execution being postponed until he finally died by suicide in early 2019.

Chris Hicks, the District Attorney for Washoe County, said passing the bill would actually be financially wasteful since lawmakers approved money to construct a new death chamber in 2015, which has yet to be used. It costs $860,000.

Wolfson argued instead of abolishing the death penalty, the state should fix the process.

“Instead of having the same conversations that end up in wholesale endorsement or abolition of the death penalty, I would like to move away from the symbolism and toward a considered assessment of what can be changed to address some of the serious concerns of those who oppose the death penalty,” Wolfson said.

But Coffee countered “we’ve tinkered with it for 40 years and we’ve not been able to fix anything.”

“The death penalty is broken, and it’s been broken for a long time,” he 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.