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Fate of death penalty set to heat up in Nevada Legislature

Updated March 25, 2017 - 3:47 pm

CARSON CITY — The death penalty may be ending in Nevada.

Assembly Bill 237 in the Legislature would ban capital punishment and commute the sentences of inmates on death row to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Supporters of the move say the time is right to end the death penalty in Nevada. The state has been unable to find a company to provide the cocktail of drugs needed for lethal injection, making it impossible to administer the punishment. Meanwhile, a death chamber that the state finished last year remains unused.

“I feel like now we can show it is a burden to the taxpayers,” said Assemblyman James Ohrenschall, D-Las Vegas. He’s sponsoring the bill with Sen. Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas.

Prosecutors say that the death penalty is an important option that should be available for heinous crimes, and that cases are carefully reviewed before deciding to seek the death penalty.

The Assembly Judiciary Committee will hear the bill Wednesday.

If it is enacted, Nevada would join 19 other states that have no death penalty. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, governors in four of the 31 states with a death penalty have imposed a moratorium on the punishment.

DEATH PENALTY HISTORY

Even before last year, when Nevada found itself without the drugs needed for execution, imposing the sentence has been relatively rare since it was reinstated in the state in 1977. There are currently 82 inmates with death sentences, including Javier Righetti, who was sentenced Tuesday for the rape and murder of Alyssa Otremba.

The death penalty in Nevada only applies to first-degree murder convictions with aggravating circumstances, such as those involving a child, torturing a victim or committing the murder during a robbery or kidnapping.

About 160 defendants have received the death sentence in Nevada in the last four decades, but only 12 of those have been executed. Eleven volunteered to be executed, opting not to pursue further appeals.

All the others have either died in prison or had their death sentences overturned and been re-sentenced. In one case, Clark County awarded Roberto Miranda, who was on death row for 14 years, $5 million after a judge ordered a new trial because of a poor defense, and prosecutors opted not to try the case again.

Nevada Department of Corrections officials sent out 247 requests for proposals last year after its stockpile of at least one drug used in executions had expired.

No responses were received. Spokeswoman Brooke Keast said the department is still exploring options, but it is unclear what those options are.

The last execution in Nevada occurred at the Nevada State Prison on April 26, 2006, when Daryl Mack was put to death. Mack was executed for the rape and murder of a Reno woman, Betty Jane May, in 1988.

The 2015 Legislature approved nearly $860,000 for a new execution chamber at the Ely State Prison, which houses Nevada’s death row population.

ARGUMENTS AGAINST DEATH PENALTY

People sometimes have the misperception that it saves money to sentence defendants to death rather than incarcerating them for life, said Anthony Sgro, an attorney who handles death penalty cases.

But it’s more costly to house inmates on death row, where they are isolated and can spend many years as the case goes through the appeals process, he said.

“Could the money not be better spent on something such as education or mental health or any of the programs that have been cut in the last decade?” Sgro asked.

A 2014 state audit found a death penalty case costs about $1.3 million. A murder case that does not involve the death penalty costs about $775,000, which includes defense fees and incarceration costs from arrest through the end an inmate’s incarceration.

“It is hard for me to think of a bigger waste of Nevada’s resources than pursuing a death penalty we can’t enforce,” said Scott Coffee, an attorney in the Clark County Public Defender’s Office.

In death penalty cases, defendants get two attorneys instead of one. Because most defendants cannot afford their own legal counsel, that means taxpayers shoulder the cost of defending someone staring down a possible death sentence.

“It is less expensive to try a case non-capital and get a sentence of life without parole than it is to file a death notice and negotiate the case,” Coffee said.

Other costs come into the equation, too.

Death penalty cases require hiring experts and evaluating a defendant for potential mitigating factors such as intellectual disability, he said.

“In a capital case, I am required to investigate somebody’s entire life history, and that is extremely expensive,” Coffee said.

ARGUMENTS FOR DEATH PENALTY

The 17 district attorneys in Nevada are unanimous in wanting to keep the death penalty as an option.

“Here in Washoe County and throughout our state, we’re all believers in the death penalty, provided we use it sparingly and judiciously,” said Chris Hicks, Washoe County district attorney and president of the Nevada District Attorneys Association.

Washoe County has sought and received the death penalty twice in the last decade. Since the late 1970s, Washoe County has sought the death penalty on only 3 percent of homicide cases, he said.

The costs, Hicks said, are a “minimal factor,” because the death penalty is reserved for the very worst offenders.

“When you make the cost argument, people always need to remember you cannot put a price on a victim’s life and a price on justice,” Hicks said.

Juries, not prosecutors, make the final decision on whether an inmate receives the death sentence.

“Certainly, the death penalty is not appropriate in every case,” said Christopher Lalli, an assistant prosecutor with the Clark County district attorney’s office. “In some cases, it’s important to give the jury the option to impose death as the possible sentence.”

In certain cases, he said, the death penalty is the most appropriate sentence.

“The truth of the matter is, I’m not sure there is a whole lot of closure for people whose loved ones have suffered a violent death,” Lalli said. “It’s more about what is the appropriate punishment for somebody who commits a crime so terrible, so heinous, so depraved that any punishment short of death would simply be insufficient.”

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

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