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Death penalty bill prompts hours of debate in Nevada Legislature

Updated March 29, 2017 - 9:45 pm

CARSON CITY — They spoke in cracked, grief-stricken voices, some clutching pictures of loved ones who were murdered in Nevada.

Members of the Assembly Judiciary Committee listened to more than three hours of testimony on Wednesday from the families of crime victims, prosecutors, defense attorneys and others about Assembly Bill 237, which would abolish the death penalty in Nevada.

One thing was clear after the hours of testimony:

Even family members of murdered Nevadans have widely varying views about the death penalty.

The bill would change the sentence for the 82 inmates on death row to be life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Nevada has not executed an inmate since 2006. Recently, the Department of Corrections has struggled to find vendors to supply the drugs needed to administer the cocktail used for lethal injection.

Since 1977, when Nevada reinstated capital punishment, 12 inmates have been executed. Eleven of those were essentially volunteers who could have continued pursuing appeals but chose the execution chamber instead. Only one ran out of appeals.

The committee did not take action Wednesday on the bill, which is sponsored by Assembly James Ohrenschall, D-Las Vegas, and Sen. Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas.

ARGUMENTS AGAINST DEATH PENALTY

Cynthia Portaro lost her 22-year-old son, Mike Portaro, when Brandon Hill shot and killed him in March 2011 outside the Tenaya Creek Brewery in Las Vegas.

Thursday, she told lawmakers, is the six-year anniversary of his death.

Ultimately, she asked prosecutors to drop the death penalty, crediting her faith. In April 2015, Hill was sentenced to 28 years to life in prison.

“I started to think we are called to forgive,” she said. “We are called to be different if you’re going to be a faithful person.”

“Nothing is going to bring my son back but maybe this kid can make a difference in this world wherever he goes because I chose to say ‘no’ to the death penalty,” Hill added.

Scott Coffee, a Clark County public defender, said the death penalty is “little more than a label” that costs additional money and resources.

“Justice is not something we get with Nevada’s death penalty,” he said.

ARGUMENTS FOR DEATH PENALTY

Support for keeping the death penalty came from prosecutors and families of victims of some of the most notorious murderers in Southern Nevada.

Kenny “Clutch” Cherry Jr. was killed on the Strip in February 2013 when Ammar Harris shot and killed the 27-year-old. Cherry’s car hit a taxi, igniting a fiery explosion that killed the taxi driver and a passenger. Harris is now on death row.

“The death penalty is definitely needed for people like that,” said Kenneth Cherry Sr.

Jennifer Otremba, the mother of 15-year-old Alyssa Otremba, described how her daughter was raped and stabbed more than 80 times by Javier Righetti, who carved “LV” in her and later returned to burn her body. Righetti was sentenced to capital punishment last week in Clark County.

“Eight days ago, we finally received justice for her life,” Otremba said.

Contact Ben Botkin at bbotkin@reviewjournal.com or 775-461-0661. Follow @BenBotkin1 on Twitter.

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