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Nevada’s top officials disagree on capital punishment

Updated April 11, 2021 - 8:16 am

When it comes to the future of capital punishment in Nevada, Attorney General Aaron Ford and Lt. Gov. Kate Marshall offer a strikingly different stance from Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson and other top prosecutors across the state.

Last month, as state lawmakers weighed proposed legislation to end executions, Ford and Marshall penned a 470-word piece in the Women’s Democratic Club of Clark County newsletter “Donkey Tracks,” leading with a call to “abolish the death penalty.”

On Friday, the Assembly Judiciary Committee voted to do just that.

Meanwhile, Wolfson, who is a registered Democrat, and several other high-ranking prosecutors have expressed strong opposition to a bill that also would commute existing death sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Marshall and Ford pointed to racial disparities among those on death row, intellectual deficiencies of those sentenced to die, and the fact that innocent people have been convicted of murders they did not commit, with roughly half of death sentences reversed on appeal in Nevada.

“Death sentences too often result from the preferences of the prosecutor, not the seriousness of the crime,” they wrote. “Too many people may be sentenced to death for the wrong reasons.”

‘Rare and extreme circumstances’

Wolfson, whose office is seeking an imminent order of execution for a man convicted of killing four people in 1999, said he believes capital punishment should remain an option for jurors.

“If we abolish the death penalty and a person who is convicted of first-degree murder can only be sentenced in two ways — life with or without the possibility of parole — that’s not right,” Wolfson told the judiciary committee last month.

He did not respond to messages seeking a response to the opinions of Marshall and Ford. A spokeswoman with Ford’s office wrote in an email to the Las Vegas Review-Journal that he would “continue to enforce the law as written.”

While about 60 men sit on death row, Nevada has carried out 12 executions since the penalty was reinstated. If Wolfson’s bid is successful, 45-year-old Zane Floyd will be the first person executed in the state in 15 years.

Wolfson suggested offering jurors an option to determine that there was “no residual doubt” someone committed a murder.

“There are differences between perpetrators and crimes,” he said. “I strongly believe that the death penalty should be reserved for the very rare and extreme circumstances. … The solution is to engage and refine the law, not abandon an option the voters support.”

‘False promise’

Elko County District Attorney Tyler Ingram, a Republican who also serves as president of the Nevada District Attorneys Association, told the committee that his office had reviewed the possibility of the death penalty in 10 cases and approved it twice. He said he consults with victims’ families and weighs aggravating and mitigating factors in a case before making a decision on capital punishment.

“We do not indiscriminately apply the death penalty,” Ingram said. “I wish people understood and gave prosecutors credit for the fact that we have just as much of an obligation to protect a defendant’s constitutional and statutory right as their defense attorneys do, and we take that responsibility seriously.”

Washoe County District Attorney Chris Hicks, a Republican, pointed to two cases where the death penalty was imposed during his 16 years with the office, and another awaiting trial in which his office is seeking capital punishment. He called those cases “the worst of the worst.”

“Simply put, some crimes are so heinous and inherently wrong that they demand strict penalties, up to death,” Hicks said to the committee. “Most Nevadans recognize this principle as just.”

Nancy Hart, president of the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty, called capital punishment a “false promise” to the loved ones of victims.

“It’s broken, and should be abolished,” she told the Review-Journal. “The promise to these victims is illusory. They’re unlikely to see the execution of the person who killed their loved one. … We think it’s the right time for Nevada to be ending this barbaric practice.”

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

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