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Nevada Supreme Court slams Clark County judge’s decision

Updated April 24, 2019 - 11:51 am

The Nevada Supreme Court chastised retired District Judge Douglas Smith in a recent decision that reversed a man’s murder conviction and death sentence.

Justices issued the decision Friday, a week after Smith retired from the Clark County bench. The ruling centered on the 2015 murder trial of Will Sitton.

“Unfortunately, this is just one in a growing list of cases where this court has reversed a judgment of conviction based on Judge Smith’s failure to follow well-established law,” Justice James Hardesty wrote in his concurring opinion. “Most troubling, Judge Smith tends to repeat the same errors, even after he has been informed of the nature of the error.”

Hardesty’s opinion focused solely on Smith and included a page-long footnote citing 16 cases that had been reversed after the high court found errors in Smith’s decisions.

“This pattern not only increases the burden on a criminal justice system that is already pushed to its limits,” Hardesty wrote, “it delays justice and in many instances forces crime victims and their family members to sit through repeated trials during which they must relive the worst moments of their lives.”

The justice also referenced two other cases that were not reversed because defendants either did not object at trial or failed to demonstrate harmful prejudice on appeal.

Contacted about the decision by phone on Tuesday, Smith said he had not read it.

As a Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter began to recite Hardesty’s opinion, Smith said, “I have no comment. Thanks.”

The high court found that Sitton had been denied a fundamental right to confront his accusers during his trial before Smith, in which a jury found Sitton guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced him to die.

Smith retired April 12 after a 23-year stint on the bench in Las Vegas. He was first elected as justice of the peace in 1995, serving until he was elected to District Court in 2008.

He has said he plans to continue to serve as a senior judge, filling temporary vacancies in both Justice Court and District Court.

Through a court spokeswoman, Chief District Judge Linda Bell declined to comment on whether the Supreme Court decision could affect Smith’s status as a senior judge. Chief Justice of the Peace Suzan Baucum did not return a phone message about the opinion.

Criminal defense attorney Dayvid Figler said any judge who violates a defendant’s constitutional rights should be disqualified from handling criminal matters.

The reversal revolved around testimony from a Las Vegas police detective who questioned Sitton’s girlfriend and co-defendant, Jacquie Schafer, about the October 2009 beating of 68-year-old Brian Haskell.

Because Schafer did not testify during the trial, in which both were convicted, Sitton’s attorneys were unable to question her about the statements she made to police that implicated her boyfriend.

Schafer and Sitton, who has a decadeslong criminal past that includes multiple sexual assaults, also were convicted of robbery, burglary, conspiracy and forgery.

Sitton’s brother, Robert, testified against the pair, saying he also participated in the attack. Robert Sitton, 39, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in 2010.

Will Sitton contended that his brother committed the murder.

“This was not a case where the evidence against the defendant was overwhelming,” the high court wrote. “Robert’s credibility was suspect without the corroboration offered by Schafer’s statements.”

Will Sitton’s attorney, Christopher Oram, said he is “very pleased” that his client, now 56, will receive a new trial. “It also means that we won’t have a joint trial,” Oram said. “And they won’t be able to use her statement, so it puts Will in a much better situation.”

Prosecutors declined to comment on the reversal. Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson said in a text message that the “matter is under review.”

Contact David Ferrara at dferrara@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-1039. Follow @randompoker on Twitter.

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