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Nevada's new execution chamber at Ely State Prison. Courtesy: Nevada Department of Corrections.

The Assembly and the state Democratic Party both want the death penalty to die. So why isn’t the Democrat-led Senate in a hurry to put capital punishment out of its statutory misery?

Eliminating the death penalty from Nevada’s statutes would simply codify present reality into law. The only authorized method of capital punishment in our state, per NRS 176.355, is lethal injection, and that’s a rather tricky method to execute when drug manufacturers are increasingly unwilling to sell the drugs needed to successfully administer the death penalty. Hospira, which used to be the main American manufacturer of the first drug used in Nevada’s capital punishment cocktail, stopped selling the drug in the United States a decade ago due to ethical and regulatory concerns. Nowadays, states seeking to perform lethal injections either have to find small batch compounding pharmacies willing to make the necessary drugs on the “down low,” or, if they’re really desperate, they can try to illicitly import drugs from overseas — if the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t seize them first

That’s why, from a purely practical standpoint, the death penalty has already been abolished in this state. We just need our legislators to update our statutes to reflect current reality.

Then again, from a purely practical standpoint, if Nevada can’t execute anyone whether we ban the death penalty or not, why bother expending the political capital to ban it at all? In fact, what’s stopping a particularly craven aspiring politician from running on a “law and order” platform of applying the death penalty to every criminal infraction, no matter how big or small? Surely there are voters who secretly or openly wish for the deaths of those who refuse to use their turn signal before making a lane change on the freeway, violating NRS 484B.223 with each unannounced lane change. Surely there are some constituents who would shower you with money and votes if you promise to make illegal immigration a capital offense, especially if you find a way to tie it into “Help[ing] America’s Sheriffs Keep Our Neighborhoods and Communities Safe by Halting Illegal Immigration.”

What’s the harm? Nobody’s going to actually die either way. Nevada hasn’t executed anyone in 14 years. No matter how many Nevadans you promise to kill on the campaign trail, you can sleep soundly with a clear conscience knowing that, if Nevada actually puts someone to death because you passed a law promising the state would do so, you’ll probably be term-limited out of office before that happens — and once you are, well, anything that happens after that surely becomes somebody else’s fault.

Soulless practicalities and political cynicism aside, however, there are only two things which leftist defense attorney Dayvid Figler, conservative NPRI communications director Michael Schaus, and I all probably agree with: The Nevada Independent is a fantastic place to write for and the death penalty is philosophically and morally indefensible. The intent behind capital punishment might be to “put down” dangerous criminals before they kill again, the way you might kill a violent pet or farm animal, but policy outcomes don’t care about our intentions. Here in the real world, prosecutors make mistakes, and as long as capital punishment exists, those mistakes will kill people at taxpayer expense. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, more than 170 innocent people have been exonerated from death row — and since there’s no point in exonerating a corpse, we’ll never know how many innocent people were executed before they could have been exonerated.

Worse yet, when anyone actually tries to identify these mistakes and free the innocent, prosecutors and cynical politicians routinely try to deflect blame and deny culpability. We saw this most vividly when Fred Steese was pardoned in 2017 — but not before the Clark County district attorney’s office tried to force him to plead guilty and former gubernatorial hopeful Adam Laxalt tried to abstain from voting on the pardon at all before ultimately voting against it. Better an innocent man rot in prison than an ambitious Virginian look weak on crime while running for governor in Nevada, apparently. 

Even so, capital punishment persists in this country because enough of us fantasize about shooting bullets into the heads of people we don’t like to form a viable political constituency. Far too many of the rest of us hope, meanwhile, that if we elect someone who openly fantasizes about killing others, maybe they’ll somehow protect us by pointing their guns in the opposite direction once they make their fantasies a reality.

Which brings me to Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) and Sen. Melanie Scheible (D-Las Vegas).

The two Democratic senators are employed by the Clark County district attorney’s office — yes, the very same taxpayer-funded office that tried to railroad an innocent man into pleading guilty for murder, the very same taxpayer-funded office that called for a warrant of execution while the Assembly was deliberating over whether it should seek to abolish the death penalty, and the very same taxpayer-funded office that employs an attorney who wrote an editorial for a publication headquartered over 2,000 miles from his home because a tattoo spoiled his immersive experience at Disneyworld.

Of course, if my work drove people to suicide, I’d want to immerse myself in a fantasy universe, too. 

To be fair to the two senators, assuming employees have their employers’ interests at heart would fly in the face of nearly two hundred years of fractious and bloody industrial labor history. If government employees were as reliable at subsuming their employers’ interests into their hearts as NPRI thinks, Carson City would be every bit as much of a Democratic Party hotbed as our nation’s soon-to-be 51st state and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the nation’s largest public employee union, wouldn’t exist. 

To be fair to anyone with working eyes or ears, if Cannizzaro or Scheible have different interests than their employer, good luck identifying them. Scheible recently had a conviction overturned because she was caught writing laws which made her prosecutorial life easier. As for Cannizzaro, she helped kill over a dozen police reform measures last session and sponsored the “Peace Officer Bill of Rights”, which explicitly protects police officers from many of the same accountability measures employers use to discipline criminally misbehaving employees. Granted, she later rolled some of those protections back (and earned the ire of Las Vegas Metro’s politically tone deaf police union as a result) once it became clear she could either roll back the worst of her bill and remain an elected Democrat in good standing, or try her hand at running for Senate as a recently converted Republican.

Consequently, if either of these two wish to demonstrate more than a micrometer’s worth of daylight between their political selves and their pathologically unaccountable employer, an easy way to do so would be to simply amend AB395 to abolish the death penalty in all but the most extreme of cases before it passes the Senate. Doing so would give Gov. Sisolak exactly what he says he wants and meaningfully reduce the size and scope of potential legal infractions which might call for state-sanctioned murder. This, however, would require them to willingly shrink the powers of their employer and make their professional life mildly inconvenient. 

If past experience is any guide, I don’t think they have it in them.

David Colborne has been active in the Libertarian Party for two decades. During that time, he has blogged intermittently on his personal blog, as well as the Libertarian Party of Nevada blog, and ran for office twice as a Libertarian candidate. He previously served on the Executive Committee for his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is the father of two sons and is an IT professional. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at [email protected].  

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