Four years after a proposal to abolish the death penalty in Nevada had its first and last hearing in the Assembly Judiciary Committee, a similar bill — with similarly uncertain prospects — came before the same committee Wednesday for a lengthy and emotional discussion.
Assemblyman Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas) presented AB395, which would abolish the death penalty in Nevada and convert all existing death sentences to life in prison without parole. Before speakers gave at-times graphic accounts of crimes committed by people sentenced to death, he urged lawmakers to weigh the drier aspects of the debate: how much the process costs, the likelihood of errors, and whether the law is applied unevenly across regions.
“This is going to be an emotional, difficult hearing. You may be brought to tears by some of the testimony,” Yeager said. “But even in the midst of sharing that pain, we need to come together as Nevadans to evaluate whether the death penalty is working, and whether it should remain as part of Nevada's justice system.”
Nevada is one of 24 states that have the death penalty — 23 states have abolished it and another three have governor-imposed moratoriums, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Last week, Virginia became the latest state to end the practice.
Two major variables for the bill’s future are whether a death penalty ban can survive in the Senate, where two prosecutors hold key leadership positions at the head of the entire Senate and the Senate Judiciary Committee and have the power to kill the bill, and whether Gov. Steve Sisolak would sign such a bill if it makes it to his desk.
“There are a lot of differing opinions on that. Personally, it’s something that I’m open [to] hearing and having a discussion,” Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas), who is a prosecutor, recently told The Associated Press.
Sisolak has previously expressed opposition to the death penalty, but during his 2018 campaign, clarified that he would support it for extreme cases. Sisolak spokeswoman Meghin Delaney was noncommittal when asked about his position on the issue in early February.
“As is the case with all other bills or bill drafts going through the legislative process, the governor will review and evaluate any legislation that may come before him,” she said.
Since Nevada last had an open hearing on the issue in 2017 and that bill died in committee, the state came close to putting to death an inmate — Scott Dozier — but the execution was called off amid a legal battle over whether the state could use certain execution drugs. Dozier died by suicide in early 2019.
Although a 2017 poll showed most Nevadans firmly oppose the death penalty, a new poll released this year by anti-death penalty activists, which phrased its questions differently, showed Nevadans narrowly oppose the death penalty by a split within the margin of error.
Another death row inmate is now heading toward a possible execution. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported last week that Clark County prosecutors are planning to seek a warrant of execution in coming weeks for Zane Floyd, who was convicted of killing four people and injuring a fifth in a Las Vegas grocery store in 1999.
While Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson said the development, just as lawmakers are mulling the issue, is “coincidental,” he added that “I think the timing is good.”
“Our legislative leaders should recognize that there are some people who commit such heinous acts, whether it be the particular type of murder or the number of people killed, that this community has long felt should receive the death penalty,” he said, according to the newspaper.
Some critics have said the timing suggests prosecutors are using Floyd's life as part of a political play. Yeager said he doesn’t think the case playing out in the background will change the discussion in a meaningful way.
“It doesn't affect, sort of, my perspective on things … it's a policy decision, apart from any cases that might be out there, apart from any ongoing litigation,” he said. “Can't really control what else is going on.”
The death penalty debate
One of proponents’ main arguments is that in spite of the costs of pursuing the death penalty and following through with appeals that can span decades, the state rarely enacts the punishment. The most recent execution was 15 years ago, in 2006.
There have been 161 people sentenced to death in Nevada since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, and only 12 executions — 11 of which were “volunteers” who chose to forego appeal rights.
“The point is, we don't execute anybody, even when a death sentence is imposed,” said Scott Coffee, a public defender. “But the money is spent.”
Tom Viloria, a Reno criminal defense attorney who was formerly a prosecutor, testified that he switched from supporting to opposing capital punishment after seeing how much knowledge of a case and decision-making power is concentrated in an individual lead prosecutor. He said decisions to seek the death penalty can be arbitrary and motivated by a prosecutor’s desire for “notoriety, or just a general reputation of being a hard-nosed, bulldog prosecutor as they advanced through their career.”
Family members affected by capital punishment also weighed in to support abolition, including Cynthia Portaro, whose son Brandon Hill was killed in 2011 in Las Vegas. She argued that the drawn-on proceedings of a death penalty case is “just too much on a family to have to handle,” and that families experience the same void and lack of closure whether the penalty is execution or life imprisonment.
But prosecutors held the line on keeping the death penalty an option. Wolfson said his stance has been reinforced by mass shootings, including the October 1 shooting in Las Vegas, in which the shooter killed himself shortly after firing on a concert and left 60 people dead.
"If the appropriate punishment for a single murder is life without parole, how do you punish a person who commits multiple murders?” he said. “Should we punish someone who kills one person the same as someone who kills two, 10, or 60? I say no."
Lawmakers also heard from Jennifer Otremba, who described the murder of her 15-year-old daughter Alyssa in 2011 near her Las Vegas home. Javier Righetti, who was 19 at the time of the killing, was given a death sentence in 2017.
“He did not consider Alyssa’s life. Why should his life be considered?” Jennifer Otremba said. “I waited five and a half years for justice for my daughter, and if I have to continue to fight politicians for the rest of my life to ensure that justice is served, then I will do that.”
Another death penalty abolition bill, Democratic Sen. James Ohrenschall’s SB228, takes a more moderate approach by banning capital punishment for crimes committed in the future, but letting previous death sentences stand. It has not yet had a hearing.
Above all, proponents are urging lawmakers to do away with an “eye for an eye” mentality. Jodi Hocking, founder of a group called Return Strong for families of people who are incarcerated, said she’s been more convinced that executions need to end because of conversations she has each Sunday with inmates who are waiting to be put to death. She quoted Sister Helen Prejean, and anti-death penalty advocate, in her testimony.
“If we believe that murder is wrong and not admissible in our society, then it has to be wrong for everyone, not just for individuals, but for governments as well,” she said.
Wednesday’s was the first hearing for the bill. The committee did not vote on the measure.