Nevada Democrats Squander Opportunity To End Death Penalty

After a death penalty abolition bill cleared the state Assembly, Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak indicated he would not support it.

An effort to abolish the death penalty in Nevada, a state with one of the largest per capita death rows in the country, collapsed on Thursday after Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) said he would not support the abolition bill.

“At this time, there is no path forward for Assembly Bill 395 this legislative session,” Sisolak said in a statement. “I’ve been clear on my position that capital punishment should be sought and used less often, but I believe there are severe situations that warrant it.”

The Democratic majority in the state Assembly passed AB 395 last month, marking the first time a death penalty abolition bill has cleared either chamber of the Nevada legislature. With Democrats also in control of the state Senate and the governorship, the bill should have been well positioned to become law. But as the Friday deadline to move the bill out of a Senate committee loomed, key Democrats wavered.

Senate Judiciary Chair Melanie Scheible and Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro both work as prosecutors for the Clark County district attorney’s office when the legislature is out of session. Their boss, District Attorney Steve Wolfson, has testified against AB 395 and is currently trying to schedule an execution.

Scheible, who had previously publicly stated her support for ending the death penalty, did not hold a hearing or a committee vote on AB 395, and Cannizzaro never committed to holding a floor vote. Neither lawmaker responded to HuffPost’s requests for comment.

The politicians’ refusal to act squanders a rare opportunity to abolish a practice that is rooted in lynchings and continues to be applied disproportionately to Black people and people who are poor. Black people make up more than one-third of Nevada’s death row but just 10% of the state’s population. Every person on the state’s death row is indigent and cannot afford to hire a lawyer of their choice, and at least one-quarter have a mental illness, brain damage, or a history of trauma or abuse.

Nevada has not carried out an execution since 2006, in part because drug manufacturers have fought against their products be used to kill.

Anti-death penalty advocates suspect that the lawmakers were waiting for a signal from the governor that if they passed a bill, he would sign it into law. During his gubernatorial campaign in 2017, Sisolak said he was opposed to capital punishment but later walked back his position and said he might support the death penalty for particularly horrific crimes, citing Stephen Paddock, the man who opened fire on a country music festival in Las Vegas in 2017, killing 60 people and himself.

On Thursday, as the deadline to advance the abolition bill drew near, there were discussions about adding an amendment to allow capital punishment for mass shooting perpetrators, as an attempt to gain support from Sisolak and hesitant lawmakers. It would have significantly reduced the number of people eligible to be killed by the government. But midday Thursday, Sisolak announced an end to the legislative effort. The governor did not respond to a request for comment.

“Sen. Cannizzaro and Governor Sisolak have demonstrated a lack of concern about the unfair and racially biased application of the death penalty in Nevada,” Nancy Hart, president of the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty, said in a statement. “There are clear and profound biases inherent in the death penalty system, including racial biases, biases against the indigent and the mentally ill, and the fact that it has historically targeted those least equipped to defend themselves in court. The imposition of the death penalty is a lengthy, costly process that does not serve the well-being of victims’ family members, putting them through decades of re-traumatization.”

“That was the realization with the federal executions — that with the wrong person behind the steering wheel, there could be another killing spree.”

- Mark Bettencourt, Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty

Nationwide, public support for the death penalty is at its lowest point in more than 50 years. Protests against racist police brutality have prompted broader awareness of the inequities in the country’s criminal justice system. And the 13 executions carried out during the final months of Donald Trump’s presidency — after the federal government had not executed anyone for 17 years — showed how capital punishment can be quickly restarted as long as it remains on the books.

“That was the realization with the federal executions — that with the wrong person behind the steering wheel, there could be another killing spree,” Mark Bettencourt, a project director at the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty, told HuffPost.

The idea that the death penalty can be reserved for the so-called “worst of the worst” cases is inconsistent with how the punishment is actually applied, said Assembly Judiciary Chairman Steve Yeager, a key backer of AB 395.

“Even if you and I took a look at the same stack of 1,000 cases and did it independently and said let’s pick out the worst of the worst, I don’t think we’d have the same outcome,” said Yeager, a former public defender. “You see folks who seem to be similarly situated in terms of criminal record, in terms of background, in terms of offense and one case would be a death penalty case and the next case wouldn’t.”

Death penalty abolition bills have been introduced in Nevada’s legislature several times in the past but have never been brought up for a vote. The fact that AB 395 has made it this far is indicative of a political shift on the issue — and the effectiveness of a coalition of activists who have presented lawmakers with a range of perspectives.

At a March 31 hearing before the Assembly Committee on the Judiciary, Cynthia Portaro told lawmakers about her son, Michael, who was fatally shot outside a brewery 10 years ago. A jury found Brandon Hill guilty of the killing and prosecutors sought the death penalty. Throughout the trial, Portaro had avoided the courtroom; it was too painful to face Hill, she told HuffPost. But after her husband passed away, she had to appear in court on behalf of the family.

Portaro hadn’t thought much about capital punishment in the past, but on the morning Hill was scheduled to be sentenced, she found herself grappling with lessons from her Christian faith about forgiveness. As she prayed for guidance, she heard God speak to her, she later wrote in her book.

“Daughter, I am with you, here and always. Forgive him,” Portaro recalled hearing. “Do not worry, worry is for Me. I am asking you to speak and loudly, in that courtroom. Remove the death penalty.”

Portaro got to the courthouse early and told the prosecutor, who happened to be a longtime family friend, that she wanted him to withdraw his request for the death penalty. They argued for about 15 minutes before the prosecutor relented, she said.

“We just don’t want another life taken,” Portaro said in court later that day. “As my son Rico said, ‘We do not want to live the rest of our lives with this burden on us, too.’”

Hill thanked Portaro for intervening to spare his life and apologized for what he put her through. He was later sentenced to serve 28 years to life in prison.

The money that the state spends pursuing expensive death penalty cases could instead be used to support victims, Portaro told the Assembly committee in March. When she lost her son, she said, she received $1,000 for counseling. “It takes a little bit more than $1,000 to help somebody walk through such a difficult journey of their loved one being traumatically killed,” she said.

Proponents of the death penalty often justify the punishment as a necessary way to provide closure to people who have lost loved ones to violent crime. But victims of crime are not monolithic, and many people who don’t find comfort in seeing another person killed.

“I didn’t want to sit and wait for someone to die. I didn’t want someone else to die. For me, that was just not a way of getting justice.”

- Monique Normand, who opposed the death penalty for the person who killed her uncle

Monique Normand, whose uncle was stabbed to death in Las Vegas in 2017, told lawmakers that when she and her father first learned about the killing, they agreed that they did not want the perpetrator to get the death penalty.

“For me, thinking about that actually gave me more anxiety,” Normand said in an interview. “I didn’t want to sit and wait for someone to die. I didn’t want someone else to die. For me, that was just not a way of getting justice.”

Normand, who is a social worker, learned at the trial that the woman who killed her uncle had a traumatic background. “I have to believe if she had been able to get the mental health help that she needed, it probably would’ve prevented all these things from occurring,” she said.

Lawmakers also heard from Heather Snedeker, whose father was executed 22 years ago, when she was a child. She testified about the 30 minute, no-contact visit she was allowed with her dad before he was killed. “When you execute someone, you’re not punishing them,” Snedeker said. “You’re punishing the families, the children like me who are left to suffer and pick up the pieces of our shattered lives.”

Lawmakers’ failure to abolish the death penalty has immediate human consequences. The state is currently trying to schedule an execution date for Zane Floyd, who was sentenced to death after fatally shooting four people in a Las Vegas supermarket in 1999.

Floyd’s lawyer, Brad Levenson, said in an interview that they are in the process of preparing a clemency petition, documenting the ways Floyd was impacted by undiagnosed brain damage caused by fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and post traumatic stress disorder from a military deployment at Guantanamo Bay.

Nevada is one of 27 states that still allows the death penalty. President Joe Biden is the first president to openly oppose the death penalty. During the presidential campaign, he pledged to work with Congress to pass legislation to eliminate the federal death penalty and incentivize states to do the same, but during his first several months in office, Biden has been noticeably quiet on the issue.

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