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Clark County DA suggests Nevadans should consider a referendum on the death penalty

Sean Golonka
Sean Golonka
Criminal JusticeGovernment
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After a ban on the death penalty failed to clear the Legislature this spring, Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson is suggesting that Nevada citizens should voice their opinions on capital punishment through a referendum, which allows voters to approve or disapprove of an existing state law during a general election.

Wolfson’s comments came at a monthly Hispanics in Politics event in Las Vegas on Wednesday, where guest speaker Gov. Steve Sisolak reiterated his support for the death penalty in extreme circumstances. Las Vegas Democratic Socialists of America Co-Chair Shaun Navarro, wearing a T-shirt saying, "The death penalty kills innocent people," asked whether the Democratic governor would support a repeal of the punishment in a future legislative session. An abolition bill was scuttled earlier this year after Sisolak expressed hesitation about it, marking perhaps the highest-profile letdown of the session for progressives.

“I think the death penalty is overused. I know I’ve got the [district attorney] here,” Sisolak said. “He and I might agree or disagree on that. I've got a problem where I think there has to be some circumstances that the death penalty is allowed.”

Wolfson’s office has recently pursued a warrant to execute Zane Floyd, who was convicted of killing four people and injuring a fifth person inside a Las Vegas grocery store in 1999. Floyd’s execution, originally scheduled for late July, was delayed at the end of June to allow his lawyers time to consider the lethal injection protocols set forth by the Nevada Department of Corrections.

Wolfson, who was in the audience at the Wednesday gathering, and Sisolak both said that the 2021 legislative session was not the right time to consider the issue because of the limited time for testimony during bill hearings. Testimony was typically limited to two minutes per person with 30 minutes set aside for testimony in support, opposition and neutral. 

AB395, which would have abolished the death penalty, was spiked by Sisolak and Democratic leaders in the Senate after passing along party lines in the Assembly, with all Republicans opposed. Wolfson publicly opposed abolishing the death penalty during the legislative session, testifying during a March hearing that it has public support and is an appropriate punishment for people who kill multiple people.

“You and I are in agreement that it wasn't the right time,” Wolfson said to Sisolak on Wednesday during the breakfast. “What I would like this community to consider, potentially, is a referendum. Let's bring this issue before the voters because we all hear that more Nevadans still favor the death penalty, but that number is growing smaller and smaller.”

Scott Coffee, a public defender and member of the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty, told The Nevada Independent that the idea of bringing forward a referendum on the issue is a “smokescreen” and said that the Legislature is the best place to move forward with an effort to abolish the death penalty.

Coffee said that all of the views on the death penalty, including from the families of victims, have already been laid out through testimony over multiple years, and he emphasized that it is important now for Wolfson to concede that there are problems with the death penalty system, such as the extreme cost of administering the punishment.

No ballot initiative about the death penalty has yet been filed.

For more on how referendums work, see our explainer video here.

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