Gov. Steve Sisolak waded further into the debate over the future of the death penalty in Nevada during an exchange Wednesday with Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson at the Hispanics in Politics breakfast in downtown Las Vegas.
During a question-and-answer session following his speech, Sisolak was asked whether a bill to abolish the death penalty that failed during the 2021 could be revisited during a special session or the 2023 regular session.
“We’re not going to have it in a special session,” Sisolak responded. “Next session? The death penalty is a very emotional issue on both sides of that issue.”
The governor and Democratic legislative leaders decided to kill the bill ahead of the legislative deadline, much to the consternation of the state’s progressive advocacy groups and some fellow Democrats.
The repeal of the death penalty was approved on a party-line vote in the Assembly in April, but died in the Senate Judiciary Committee after failing to meet a legislative deadline.
Sisolak said Wednesday the pandemic-constrained structure of the last session did not allow for enough debate on such a complex issue, adding that he wants to hear from the families of crime victims and from incarcerated individuals as part of a more robust public testimony.
The governor reiterated his belief that the death penalty should be used less often and only in particularly heinous cases, such as crimes against children at a school.
Wolfson then interjected from the middle of the crowded room, telling the governor “you and I are more in agreement than disagreement on this issue.”
The matter was made more controversial by the fact that state Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro and Senate Judiciary Chair Melanie Scheible, both D-Las Vegas, work full-time for Wolfson as prosecutors. At least two lawsuits challenging their dual service are pending before the Nevada Supreme Court.
Wolfson, who testified against the death penalty repeal during the session, then took the public input question further: Why not a referendum on the death penalty?
“Let’s bring this issue before the voters,” Wolfson said. “Because we all hear that more Nevadans still favor the death penalty, but that number is growing smaller and smaller… rather than have just a few hours of testimony over a couple of days, let’s bring it to the voters.”
Replied Sisolak: “That’s one way to look at it, and I don’t necessarily disagree.” He agreed that public sentiment on the issue is changing.
“However we get more input, whether that’s through a referendum or that’s through working groups as we move forward, we need more input from the citizenry in order to make a firm, positive decision,” the governor said.
During his speech prior to taking questions, Sisolak echoed familiar themes from other Clark County appearances over the past month: The importance of getting vaccinated, and a rundown of major bills signed into law that included the state public health care option, a mining tax for K-12 education and voting rights protections.
He also touted a section of Assembly Bill 376 that will give UNLV’s Immigration Clinic $500,000, which director Michael Kagan told the room would be used to expand to an off-campus office and further support efforts to provide free legal advice to immigrants facing deportation or other proceedings.
Kagan said Nevada is only the seventh state, and first political swing state, to allocate money for this purpose.