Prosecutor senators pressed to quit foot-dragging on death penalty abolition bill

“If we’re going to have a consistent issue with legislators who are more beholden to district attorneys or would like to be district attorneys after they’re done being legislators, then we really need to have some serious primary challengers for those legislators," said Taylor Patterson of Native Voters Alliance of Nevada. (Photo: Michael Lyle)

If Nevada Democratic state senators — including key senators who are also Clark County prosecutors — refuse to advance legislation to abolish the death penalty, they should be replaced by senators who will, abolition advocates said Monday.

Assembly Bill 395, which would repeal capital punishment and has been staunchly opposed by district attorneys throughout the state, has stalled in the Senate where it could die if it doesn’t receive a hearing by Friday.

Senate Judiciary Chair Melanie Scheible, a prosecutor in the Clark County District Attorney’s office, hasn’t scheduled a hearing.

“If we’re going to have a consistent issue with legislators who are more beholden to district attorneys or would like to be district attorneys after they’re done being legislators, then we really need to have some serious primary challengers for those legislators,” said Taylor Patterson, the executive director of the Native Voters Alliance of Nevada. “We cannot continue to have a system that is so intertwined that it’s affecting justice for all of our people.”

Branden Cunningham, an organizer with the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty, said AB 395, sponsored by Assemblyman Steve Yeager, is the most successful attempt to get rid of capital punishment.

On April 13, the Nevada Assembly voted 26-16 in a party line vote to advance the bill.

“This is the furthest a bill has come in the 20 plus years the coalition has existed pushing for abolition,” he said. “If this isn’t the year, 2023 will be the year.”

But groups want AB 395 to go forward.

As an attempt to carry it over the finish line, the coalition along with the Mass Liberation Project, Battle Born Progress, the Clark County Black Caucus, Faith in Action Nevada and the NAACP of Las Vegas hosted a virtual press conference Monday to demand lawmakers advance the bill.

Gov. Steve Sisolak said he had a “hard time with the idea of a complete abolition” and recently said executions should be reserved for extreme cases.

“(The death penalty) doesn’t target the worst of the worst, but it targets those least able to defend themselves in court,” Cunningham said.

Democratic Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, also a Clark County prosecutor, said Monday talks around AB 395 were “still ongoing” and wouldn’t say whether the bill would get a committee hearing.

There has been some speculation about amendments to the bill to make exceptions for extreme cases. But groups are still pushing for full abolition.

“We don’t want to see a situation like we saw in the 70s where it slowly expanded to include more and more cases,” Cunningham added.

Yvette Williams, the chair of the Clark County Black Caucus, said amending the bill also wouldn’t change how Black people are on death row at higher rates.

While Black people make up about 9 percent of the total population, they are 35 percent of current death row inmates.

“Any version of maintaining the death penalty in any way would come along with a disportionality of that sentence being given to African Americans and other people of color,” Williams said.

It’s the fact this bill might die without another hearing that has left many death penalty abolitionists frustrated.

Leslie Turner, an organizer with the Mass Liberation Project at the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, said passing the bill shouldn’t be controversial since community organizers, who campaigned for and helped elect many of the lawmakers, are pushing the legislation.

“A lot of the organizations fighting for this bill were the same organizations on the ground in 2018 working to get a lot of these people elected,” she said.

“We have this trifecta now,” Turned added pointing to the Democratic control of the governorship and both houses of the Legislature. “What has it gotten us? It’s not to say nothing has been done. I understand that the legislature is a difficult job. But this is what we want. We want to end the death penalty in this state.”

Some question the role the district attorney’s office is playing in ensuring the bill fails.

Amid discussions around AB 395, Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson started pushing for the execution of Zane Floyd, who was convicted for killing four people in 1999.

His execution, if carried out, would be the first execution in 15 years. On Monday, Wolfson’s office asked for the execution to be carried out in July.

AB 395 isn’t the first time organizers have pointed to lawmakers’ ties to the district attorney’s office killing or watering down criminal justice reform.

“To the folks in the Senate and the governor, opposing the abolition of the death penalty doesn’t show you’re tough on crime,” Patterson said. “It shows you’re very, very weak and more beholden to district attorneys than you are to your constituents and to true justice.”

Maria-Teresa Liebermann-Parraga, the deputy director for Battle Born Progress, added constituents shouldn’t “have to beg for bills to be heard.”

“If the Senate Majority leader wants to discuss this, the best way to discuss this is by giving it a hearing, ” she added. “This is something people care about and want to hear about.”

Turner added depending on what happens with the bill, along with other criminal justice bills being debated, organizers might have to reconsider “who we support and who we run.”

“(Candidates) need to come from us, from the community and the movement,” she said. “From the people who do the work and have our backs when the time comes. Instead of having candidates given to us and shopped to us, we need to do work around candidates who are really for the community and from the community.”

Following the death of George Floyd and a summer of protest calling for systemic changes to racial inequity within the justice system, lawmakers in Nevada declared racism a public health crisis.

The death penalty, organizers said, is rife with racial disparities that lawmakers should address.

“What was the purpose of that declaration saying that systemic racism is a public safety threat if there was no intention to actually address systemic racism in any profound way?” Turner said. “We are at a point where we are tired of the symbolic gestures … We need action behind those statements.”

Virginia became the first Southern state to abolish the death penalty earlier this year, giving many organizers hopes Nevada would follow suit.

Recently, the execution of Ledell Lee, who was put to death in Arkansas four years ago after maintaining his innocence, has brought more scrutiny to the potential of wrongful executions.

The ACLU and the Innocence Project said the genetic material on the murder weapon belonged to another man.

Pastor Ender Austin, an organizer with Faith In Action Nevada, said Lee’s death and the fear of executing an innocent man should cause lawmakers to consider AB 395.

“It should allow people of good conscience and good will to really take a pause and look,” he said. “It should make slow our breaks on killing people and have a deep conversation about what the moral price we pay when we continue unjustly lynching people. What is going to happen unfortunately is I think people are going to be beholden to other entities that may or may not have that moral consciousness.”

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.