Lawyers call jurors’ death penalty decision costly, unnecessary

The jury already had convicted Charles Conner of first-degree murder and two counts of sexual assault in the death of Beth Lynn Jardine, a 23-year-old woman he raped and beat to death with a claw hammer in 1985.

Now it was time to determine if Conner should die.

For a week, jurors in the Clark County District Court case had listened to prosecutors present aggravating circumstances to support their case for death by lethal injection. Jurors were told that Conner’s crimes were not isolated acts. He had been convicted of raping a 9-year-old girl.

Defense attorneys argued mitigating circumstances, including Conner’s history of childhood physical, mental and sexual abuse.

Now, alone in the jury room, they took a vote: Seven for life in prison without parole. Four jurors — including foreman Dino Carpenello — for death. One was undecided.

But those supporting the death penalty "were convincing," Carpenello said.

A second vote came back 8 to 4 for the death penalty.

After four hours of agonizing debate, the vote last Monday was unanimous: Death.

***

Unbeknownst to the jury, the trial didn’t have to happen at all, Conner’s lawyers said.

Since his arrest in 2007, Conner, 61, had been willing to plead guilty to all charges and accept a life term with no opportunity for parole. His lawyers say that offer, rejected by prosecutors, would have had the same effect as the death penalty.

Conner has thyroid cancer and "is going to die in prison," Clark County Public Defender Philip Kohn said. "And he’s going to die of natural causes" well before he comes close to receiving a lethal injection.

The appeals process in death penalty cases can take more than a decade, and Kohn’s team already is working on Conner’s.

"We are going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars litigating this forever,” Kohn said. "I think it’s an incredible waste of money, since he would have taken life without (parole) and never gotten out."

Kohn acknowledged that there are some cases that "shock the conscience of the community" — such as mass or serial murders, for example — where consideration of the high cost of a death penalty trial would likely fall on deaf ears. But he argues that prosecutors too often seek the death penalty, which has put more than 85 convicts on death row at Ely State Prison.

"We should save it for the very worst cases, and he (Conner) is not it," Kohn said.

District Attorney David Roger couldn’t disagree more.

"The death penalty is reserved for people exactly like this defendant,” Roger said. "He raped a girl and murdered another. He deserved the death penalty. Period."

***

Because the murder happened more than two decades ago and Conner was living in Arkansas when he was arrested, investigators and attorneys for both sides had to travel to numerous states, including Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, to prepare for trial.

Many of the witnesses who testified at trial and in the subsequent penalty phase also had to come from out of state at taxpayer expense.

Among the witnesses flown in by prosecutors were a woman Conner raped and kidnapped in 1994, when she was 9, and the two men who saved her.

Jardine’s parents, who also live in Arkansas, were brought in to testify about their grief over the death of their daughter, who was a 23-year-old airman 2nd class stationed at Nellis Air Force Base, and their anguish during the 22 years that her murder went unsolved.

Defense attorneys flew in Conner’s family and friends to testify that his life was worth saving. Conner’s siblings testified that he was the victim of physical, mental and sexual abuse as a child. His siblings exposed family secrets about their abusive father, secrets some hadn’t even told their spouses.

The district attorney’s office said $25,224.45 was spent on air fare, hotel rooms and standard witness fees for its witnesses.

The public defender’s office said it did not know its total costs.

Roger said those costs shouldn’t matter, and dismisses Kohn’s criticism of prosecutors who file death penalty cases.

Those who cite cost in opposing death penalty cases are the same people who drive up taxpayer costs, Roger said. Defense attorneys "bleed the system dry" and then try to convince the public that the death penalty is too expensive, he said.

"All the courts have to do is to stop entertaining these endless, frivolous appeals, rule in a timely manner and execute people on death row. Once that happens the wishes of the people of the state of Nevada will be fulfilled," Roger said.

The district attorney disagreed that cost should have played a factor making a plea deal with Conner.

"So we brought some people in from out of state," Roger said. "Does that form a basis for giving a killer a chance for parole or life without the possibility of parole? In my book it doesn’t."

Regardless of the maximum penalty, defendants will always want a lesser sentence, he said. And because state law requires a jury to determine punishment in first-degree murder cases unless both sides agree to a sentence, the added cost of the penalty phase would remain, he said.

***

Determining the fate of Charles Conner was draining for the jurors, said Carpenello, a 50-year-old dealer at a Strip casino. He said that being able to talk about the case has helped him recover emotionally.

"The whole thing took a toll. I couldn’t sleep at night," he said.

The jury was subjected to myriad graphic and gruesome images and testimony. Carpenello said it was hard to repeatedly see crime scene photos and to hear the testimony from some witnesses. He described waking from his sleep one night during the trial and calling out for a court bailiff.

When asked if he would have voted differently had he known that Conner was willing to plead guilty and take the life prison term, Carpenello paused before answering.

"After seeing all the stuff he’d done, and that there were other victims, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference to me," Carpenello said.

"The brutality of this murder … he deserved what he got."

Contact reporter Francis McCabe at fmccabe@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-1039.

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