Justice not served if we become victims in society fearful of retaliation

Don’t kid yourself. Lady Justice is a dawdling slowpoke.

Hugo Elsen, owner of a Las Vegas jewelry store, was repairing watches in his store when Paul Browning walked in and robbed him, stabbing him six times with a knife, first in the back and finally striking Elsen in the heart.

Browning was 29 and had been convicted three times of violent robberies in California. He was on parole when he killed Elsen — 23 years ago, on Nov. 8, 1985. Prosecutors said he needed money for his heroin habit.

Browning was convicted of murder, burglary, robbery and escape in 1987 and was sentenced to death.

Then the appeal process began. Back and forth it went. Browning lost his first appeal, then won the right to a second penalty hearing, and that jury slapped the death penalty on him again.

With the help of skilled Las Vegas civil rights attorney JoNell Thomas, he tried for a third penalty hearing, but last Thursday, the Nevada Supreme Court said the appeals issues didn’t have merit and upheld his death sentence.

“The evidence of his guilt was overwhelming,” the court said, failing to buy into his claim that the murder was committed by an unidentified Cuban man.

Browning’s fingerprints were found at the crime scene, three witnesses placed him there, he admitted his guilt to a shady couple, and he was in a hotel room with jewelry from the robbery.

Browning is one of 82 people on Nevada’s death row today. They’re certainly entitled to their rights to appeal, because taking someone’s life is a serious decision. I just wish appeals moved a little faster.

A retired FBI agent who used to have his watch battery changed in the jewelry shop remembered Elsen. “I found him to be an affable old man who knew his trade.”

The jewelry store was at 520 Las Vegas Boulevard South, within walking distance of the FBI offices, then at the Foley Federal Building. The jewelry store opened in 1954.

The former agent saw the four-paragraph story about Browning losing another appeal in Friday’s Las Vegas Review-Journal and felt compelled to write a letter to the editor.

He wrote he was shocked when Elsen, 60, was murdered and pleased when Browning was arrested, convicted and sentenced to death. He was dismayed at the lengthy appeal process, a common reaction among family and friends of murder victims, who contend they are victimized with repeated trials and penalty hearings and the rights of murderers outweighing the rights of the murdered.

“I realized I am now an old man, several years older than Elsen when he was murdered,” the former agent wrote. “Where is justice for Elsen’s family and for this community when a killer is allowed to turn a senseless vicious crime into an endless exchange of legal briefs that transform the crime into sterile words on a sheet of paper?

“Our courts frequently display a statue of Lady Justice, blindfolded and holding the scales of justice. But look closely and you will see that Lady Justice also holds a sword. The sword represents the power of justice. Today, unfortunately, that sword remains sheathed far too often and justice is not served,” the retiree wrote.

But here’s the kicker.

The retired lawman was reluctant to have his name published. Fearful of retaliation from Browning’s family. Afraid for his own family.

“In today’s society, I think discretion is justified. Just reading your newspaper each day provides cause for concern that anything can happen anywhere in this valley at any time,” he wrote.

I’m afraid, too. I’m afraid of the deterioration of a society where people are losing the ability to express an opinion unless they are provided the shield of anonymity.

One of the discounted reasons for the appeal was that the prosecutor called Browning “evil” in his closing statement. Browning was evil and may still be evil.

And I’m not afraid to say it, no matter how rough and tough this town has become.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0275.

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