Sisolak issues final blow to death penalty abolition legislation

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

A three-part cocktail sealed the fate of death penalty abolition this session: a district attorney association that was staunchly against the bill, state Senators who also work as prosecutors who refused to give the legislation a hearing, and finally a Democratic governor who was opposed.

After saying for months he didn’t support a complete abolition of the death penalty, Gov. Steve Sisolak announced Thursday there was “no path forward,” on Assembly Bill 395, which would have eliminated capital punishment in Nevada.  

“I’ve been clear on my position that capital punishment should be sought and used less often, but I believe there are severe situations that warrant it,” he said in a statement. “I understand there are those who will be disappointed by this outcome, however the process of determining which crimes are severe enough to warrant this punishment deserves thoughtful consideration.” 

Sisolak said he believed the discussion “requires robust communication and input so that the voices of victims’ families and the advocates of the proposed measure can be heard.”

Death penalty abolitionists had been arguing the perfect avenue to have that robust discussion would have been a committee hearing, which Democratic lawmakers refused to schedule. 

“If the Senate Majority leader wants to discuss this, the best way to discuss this is by giving it a hearing,” said Maria-Teresa Liebermann-Parraga, the deputy director for Battle Born Progress in a press conference Monday. “This is something people care about and want to hear about.”

AB 395, sponsored by Assemblyman Steve Yeager, was 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, but it had since languished in the Senate where Senate Judiciary Chair Melanie Scheible, a prosecutor in the Clark County District Attorney’s office wouldn’t give it a hearing. 

Athar Haseebullah, the executive director of the ACLU of Nevada, said Sisolak and Senate Democrats failed Nevada.

“The governor’s statement that ‘there is no path forward’ is a major flip-flop on an issue that is literally a matter of life and death,” he said. “The fact that Senate Democrats failed to even hold a hearing on this bill shows where they stand on racial justice and criminal justice reform. By failing to even consider how to advance this bill before dismissing it, the Senate and governor have emboldened government attorneys to seek the execution of civilians through our state’s racist, arbitrary, and expensive capital punishment system. Party leaders in the Senate and Governor’s office have shown that their commitment to meaningful reform is nothing but lip service. The people of Nevada are ready to end the death penalty. They deserve to have a voice, and they deserve true leadership in the Legislature rather than just political cronyism. This is an embarrassment.”

There had been talk about adding amendments to the bill to make exceptions for extreme cases. Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, also a prosecutor, said Thursday that Yeager had worked “to come up with some compromise but we’re just not going to be able to get there.”

“I know there has been a lot of work to try to find some consensus around an amendment that would solve some of the concerns I know the governor had expressed and our constituents had expressed, but I don’t think we were going to be able to get there,” she said. 

The Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty and other groups had been pressuring Nevada Democrats to advance the bill before Friday’s deadline. 

“While we are disappointed that we could not get across the finish line this session on AB395, we have to accept that there is a process and many of our priorities don’t ultimately come to fruition,” Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson said in a statement. “ We will continue working on policies we believe are sound and continue working with our colleagues on meaningful reform to the inequities that exist in our criminal justice system.”

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.