CARSON CITY — For the 83 men facing capital punishment in Nevada, death by natural causes is a more likely outcome than seeing their sentences actually carried out.
The last execution occurred at Nevada State Prison on April 26, 2006, when Daryl Mack was put to death by lethal injection. Mack was executed for the rape and murder of a Reno woman, Betty Jane May, in 1988.
He was only the 12th inmate executed in Nevada since capital punishment was reinstated by the Legislature in 1977. In 11 of the cases, the executions were only carried out when inmates gave up their rights to appeal their convictions.
Many others death row inmates have died while awaiting execution, including “sex-slave” killer Gerald Gallego and Priscilla Ford.
Gallego was sentenced to death in Nevada for the murder of two young women in 1980. He died of cancer in 2002.
Ford, for many years Nevada’s only woman on death row, was convicted of killing six people and injuring 23 after she drove her Lincoln Continental down a crowded Reno sidewalk on Thanksgiving Day 1980. She died in 2005. No cause of death was released.
The ongoing failure of Nevada to proceed with executions of condemned inmates is one argument used by opponents of capital punishment to seek a ban on the practice. Another is the cost.
Now, for the first time, Nevada lawmakers should soon have some solid information to go on in the often heated policy debate over the value of capital punishment.
LIFE-DEATH COST ANALYSIS
The 2013 Legislature approved Assembly Bill 444, which requires the legislative auditor to review the financial costs of the death penalty in Nevada.
It will include an analysis of the costs of prosecuting and adjudicating death penalty cases compared to non-capital cases and will be presented to lawmakers by January 2015.
Opponents of the death penalty have long argued that the costs of litigating death penalty cases, along with other associated expenses, make the punishment a financial drain on scarce state revenues.
But actual numbers have been hard to come by.
A similar bill passed in the 2011 session was vetoed by Gov. Brian Sandoval because of his concerns about whether the proposed review would be reliable and fair. The new measure was altered to reflect his concerns and it was signed into law.
Sandoval, a former federal judge, supports capital punishment. A statement from his office said it is premature to comment on potential legislation that could deal with the death penalty in the 2015 session.
There has not been any recent polling on how Nevada voters view the death penalty.
OHRENSCHALL OPPOSES EXECUTIONS
The 2013 bill came from the Legislative Operations and Elections Committee, chaired by Assemblyman James Ohrenschall, D-Las Vegas. Ohrenschall said such an analysis has been sought for several years, with the 2013 bill succeeding because it ensures the review will be thorough and fair.
Ohrenschall said he believes the audit will show capital cases are much more costly, and that the information will give lawmakers in 2015 the information they need to consider the capital punishment issue.
“The 2015 Legislature will be able to look at it from a dispassionate point of view,” he said. “Some people believe capital punishment is wrong no matter what, but it’s not about that. It’s about the numbers and whether it is worth it.”
Ohrenschall said he is personally opposed to capital punishment and noted that the cost issue could be a factor in whether it is continued in Nevada or abolished.
State Sen. Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, sponsored the failed 2011 bill and testified in support of the measure in the 2013 session.
“Given the astronomical cost when the death penalty is designated, the tight resources and the fact that people are not being executed — we do not even have an execution chamber — it is one of those things that is ripe to be investigated,” he said at a hearing on the bill.
Nevada actually does have an execution chamber that could potentially be used to carry out a death sentence. It is at the now-closed Nevada State Prison in Carson City, but Corrections Department Director Greg Cox told lawmakers last session it does not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and the agency would likely face a legal challenge if an attempt was made to use it.
There is no execution scheduled in Nevada currently.
The agency sought $700,000 to build a new execution chamber at Ely State Prison, where the state’s death row population is housed. Lawmakers rejected the funding request, however.
PRO AND CON
Segerblom said the study, which will be done with existing staff at no additional cost, will allow lawmakers and the governor to base any policy decisions on facts instead of speculation.
“We need to know how much more it costs to try to pursue the death penalty rather than life without parole,” he said.
Segerblom said he believes the death penalty process in Nevada is broken. If executions could be carried out in a reasonable amount of time then supporters of capital punishment might be able to make a case for it, he said.
“But when you die 20 years after what you did, it seems like cruel and unusual punishment,” Segerblom said.
The oldest current death row case dates back to 1979.
Washoe County District Attorney Richard Gammick, an advocate for maintaining the death penalty, said the analysis is just a backdoor attempt to abolish a punishment that he said should be preserved for “the worst of the worst.”
“The death penalty still has a role,” he said. “Look at the brutality that goes on today. There are people who commit crimes who don’t deserve to live.”
But rather than debate capital punishment head-on, opponents and their political supporters are seeking other avenues to end executions in Nevada, he said.
Gammick agrees with Segerblom that the system is broken, but his solution to fixing the problem is far different.
Rather than eliminate the death penalty, more needs to be done to speed up the process so the rights of the condemned are preserved, but their cases don’t drag on endlessly in the courts, Gammick said.
According to a fact sheet put together by the federal public defender’s office for a hearing on the bill, there were 151 people sentenced to death in Nevada from 1977 through October 2012.
Of the 151 cases, 44 inmates were permanently removed from death row due to legal action. Another 11 are awaiting new sentencing hearings. Eleven more died of natural causes and four committed suicide. Twelve were executed and 69 are on death row with appeals in progress.
A 2011 study of the California death penalty concluded that if the governor commuted the sentences of those remaining on death row to life without parole, it would result in savings of $170 million a year.
Even so, California voters in November 2012 rejected a ban on capital punishment by a vote of 52 percent to 48 percent.
A recent study of the death penalty in Nevada compared the costs of defending capital and noncapital murder cases in Clark County. The study, conducted by Terance Miethe of the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, looked at the time spent by defense attorneys at various stages of a case.
One finding was that capital murder cases cost an additional $170,000 to $212,000 per case compared to noncapital murder cases.
Ohrenschall said a study in Kansas also found that capital cases were more costly.
Even so, the Legislature there said, “We like it, we want it, it’s worth it,” Ohrenschall said.
Contact Capital Bureau reporter Sean Whaley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 775-687-3900.