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Wolfson gives more scrutiny to potential death penalty cases

After an emotional two-day penalty hearing, jurors agreed that there were nearly two dozen mitigating factors to consider sparing Ralph “Macky” Jeremias’ life, yet they still gave him the death penalty.

During the penalty phase of the trial, Jeremias’ attorney Charles Cano asked jurors to “look inside yourself and see if there’s mercy.”

Other defense lawyers familiar with death penalty cases say that the sentencing process often can be confusing to jurors.

“There’s a lot of room for improper considerations or analysis that doesn’t come out with an objective standard,” said Dayvid Figler, who represents four people who could be sentenced to death.

Before District Attorney Steve Wolfson took office in 2012, Clark County had more pending death penalty cases per capita than any other urban county in the United States.

Those numbers are falling, though, as Wolfson says he’s giving more scrutiny to determine which first-degree murder defendants prosecutors want to send to death row.

He has filed notices to seek the death penalty in 25 cases since 2012, and he said that he’s seeking capital punishment in about half as many cases each year than his predecessor, David Roger.

“I think there’s a little bit of a change of culture here in the DA’s office,” Wolfson said. “We’re only going to file the death notice in what we consider to be the so-called worst of the worst cases.”

A group of senior prosecutors, including Wolfson, regularly review murder cases to determine whether to seek the death penalty. The process takes between 30 and 90 minutes per case, he said.

Last year, Clark County prosecutors considered 56 eligible cases and decided to pursue the death penalty in 13. In 2012, there were 24 eligible cases and prosecutors decided to seek the death penalty in five cases.

Some of the factors he believes make a case eligible include previous murder convictions, multiple victims and the involvement of children.

Wolfson acknowledged that death penalty cases are more costly than murder cases without the death penalty, but he said that’s not a deterrent for prosecutors.

“If it’s the right case, regardless of the cost, we’re going to file notice on it,” Wolfson said. The death penalty “is still the law. And until and unless the law changes, it’s my obligation to pursue it in appropriate cases.”

Wolfson said he has withdrawn the death penalty in about five cases since he took office, resulting in plea bargains.

The 29-year-old Jeremias, who was born in the Philippines, was convicted earlier this month in a double-murder carried out inside a central valley apartment five years ago.

His mother, grandmother and cousins testified during his penalty hearing, asking the jury to spare his life. Throughout that testimony, some jurors wiped tears from their eyes.

Relatives of the victims, Paul Stephens and Brian Hudson, also spoke during the penalty hearing, evoking emotion that even had one prosecutor choked up.

Prosecutors said Jeremias and two men went to the apartment planning to rob the victims. The two men told police Jeremias walked into the apartment alone and used a 9 mm handgun to kill the victims execution-style.

One of the men cut a deal with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder and other charges. In exchange, he agreed to testify at Jeremias’ trial. The second man was acquitted of murder and robbery charges in 2012.

Jeremias, who denied the killing, had past arrests for possessing a gun in a park and possessing a gun with an obliterated serial number. He had also admitted to selling marijuana.

Among the list of mitigating factors the jury found for Jeremias: lack of supervision from a very early age; multiple concussions as an infant, a teen and a young adult; attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; his initial bond with his parents; lack of access to medication; loss of a martial arts career; untreated depression; untreated anxiety; substance abuse and that he was under the influence of a controlled substance at the time of the killings.

The list went on.

But they decided that those factors did not outweigh the gravity of the crime and Jeremias’ background.

His stepfather, Gordon Daniel, believes the jury made the wrong decision.

“I don’t think they took all the mitigating factors seriously enough,” Daniel said.

John Roop, a friend of Hudson and Stephens, called it a “just verdict” that would help provide closure for him.

Still, he said the case was “tragic in all regards.”

Jeremias’ death sentence likely won’t be carried out for more than a decade, if ever, as he and his lawyers grind through appeal after appeal. No one has been executed in Nevada in more than eight years, and state legislators have ordered a study on the costs of the death penalty for 2015.

Veteran defense lawyer Robert Langford represents accused strip shooter Ammar Harris, one of Clark County’s most high-profile death penalty defendants.

Langford said he investigates a client’s background in most violent crime cases, but that becomes critical when capital punishment is at stake.

In contrast to the Jeremias verdict, Langford said, a jury can find just one mitigating factor to decide on sparing a defendant’s life.

A jury must decide whether the mitigating factors outweigh the aggravating pieces of the crime and the defendant’s life.

“What the hell does weight mean?” Langford said. “And how do you assign weight to any given mitigator, or for that matter any given aggravator? There’s really no quantification whatsoever. The death penalty is imposed in an arbitrary and capricious way no matter how you stack it up.”

Although Wolfson wants more scrutiny in deciding which cases to pursue death, some defense lawyers say negotiations are non-existent.

Figler and Kristina Wildeveld represent Michelle Paet, who faces the death penalty in the fatal shooting of her husband, Air Force Staff Sgt. Nathan Paet. Prosecutors said Paet plotted with gunman Michael Rodriguez to kill the sergeant and collect $600,000 in military benefits and insurance.

Wildeveld said the victim’s family is “adamantly to their core opposed to the death penalty,” but prosecutors refused to take capital punishment off the table.

Wolfson declined to comment on the case. The defendants were indicted before he took office.

Wildeveld said death penalty cases take “exorbitantly more time than any other case.” The lawyers must research everything a defendant has ever done in his life, good or bad, even investigating the factors of his birth. Then they present that evidence to a jury that must decide the defendant’s fate.

“Nobody wins in a death trial,” Wildeveld said.

Contact reporter David Ferrara at dferrara@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-1039. Find him on Twitter: @randompoker.

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