Pardons Board to consider reducing all Nevada death sentences to life without parole
The Nevada Pardons Board, which includes outgoing Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, will discuss commuting all death sentences at its next meeting on Tuesday.
The discussion item, listed on the board's agenda, comes after attempts to abolish the death penalty through the legislative process in 2021 failed. At the time, Sisolak announced there was “no path forward” for efforts by Democratic lawmakers to abolish capital punishment.
Sisolak’s office acknowledged that the governor had requested on Wednesday that the item be added to next week’s meeting.
“The Governor believes this is a worthy item for the Commissioners to consider and will be voting in favor of the measure,” Sisolak spokeswoman Meghin Delaney said Thursday in an email to The Nevada Independent.
“The Governor has always said that capital punishment should be sought and used less often, and he believes this is an appropriate and necessary step forward in the ongoing conversation and discussion around capital punishment,” she added.
Sisolak’s decision not to help shepherd death penalty abolition through the Legislature last year came as a blow to criminal justice reform advocates who hoped the Democratic trifecta in the Legislature and governor’s office would finally take steps to end the death penalty.
Sisolak's loss in the November election means the influential board will include, starting in January, Republican Gov.-elect Joe Lombardo, who pledged during his campaign to “reverse Sisolak’s soft-on-crime policies and put an end to his dangerous legislation that makes our streets less safe.”
The board also consists of Democratic Attorney General Aaron Ford and justices of the Supreme Court Ronald Parraguirre, James Hardesty, Lidia Stiglich, Elissa Cadish, Kristina Pickering and Douglas Herndon.
Ford’s office and Lombardo’s staff said they did not have immediate comment. Sisolak did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Clark County Public Defender Scott Coffee has worked with convicted people facing the death penalty for 25 years. In a phone interview Thursday with The Nevada Independent, Coffee said if the proposal moves forward it would “certainly be a step in the right direction,” but he wished death sentences in Nevada would have been banned legislative session while Sisolak was still in office.
“Legislature is always somewhat of a dice roll,” Coffee said. “Honestly, this is an issue that Republicans should be behind, as well as Democrats … because of the cost involved.”
Nevada hasn’t had an execution since 2006, with most people on death row either getting a plea deal or having their punishment blocked by higher courts, Coffee said. Aside from the moral and ethical issues of the death penalty, Coffee said the cost to bring a person to the point of execution is often money lost.
“It's a colossal waste of money, not to mention the moral and ethical issues,” Coffee said.
Athar Haseebullah, executive director of the ACLU of Nevada, echoed Coffee’s wish to end the death penalty within the silver state.
“We are hoping the Pardons Board does the right thing,” Haseebullah said.
However, the item may not make it to board discussion if Washoe County District Attorney Chris Hicks has his way. The prosecutor released a statement on Friday saying his office filed a formal legal challenge in the First Judicial District Court, saying the proposed agenda item “violates Nevada’s Constitution and its relevant statutes.”
Hicks went on to say the elimination of the 57 death sentences at the hands of the majority of the eight-member Nevada Pardons Board is undemocratic and unjust to victims.
“It tramples upon the fundamental rights of crime victims and disregards due process in the law,” Hicks said. “Most importantly, the timing and nature of the added agenda item is an insult to those deceased victims who were tortured, raped, and slayed at the hands of the 57 heinous men on Nevada’s Death Row.”
Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson filed a petition to the Nevada Supreme Court seeking to prevent the meeting on the grounds that it violates provisions of the Open Meeting Law and the agenda item is too broad.
Updated 12/15/2022 at 9:56 a.m. to include a statement from Scott Coffee and Aaron Ford's staff saying they did not wish to comment. Updated again at 12:35 p.m. to include statement from Lombardo's staff saying they did not wish to comment. Updated again at 2:05 p.m. on 12/15/22 to add comments from Sisolak, ACLU director. Updated 12/16/2022 at 5:18 p.m. to include a statement from Washoe County District Attorney. Updated 12/19/2022 at 9:02 a.m. to include Clark County District Attorney filing info.