Assemblyman James Ohrenschall and Sen. Tick Segerblom, both Democrats, called on colleagues to abolish the death penalty in Nevada.
Scott Coffee of the Clark County Public Defender’s office told the Assembly Judiciary Committee the death penalty is, “broken and it is broken beyond repair.”
“The truth is we don’t execute anyone,” he said.
Coffee said AB237 by Ohrenschall and Segerblom wouldn’t only eliminate the death penalty for future cases but convert the sentences of the existing 81 Nevada inmates on death row to what he called “death by incarceration” — life without possible parole.
He said the rate Nevada DA’s seek the death penalty is disproportionate. There were 175 notices of intent to seek a death sentence in Clark County since 2005 but just four in Washoe County for that same period.
He and Segerblom told the committee the system is costing the state a fortune because, once that notice is filed, there have to be two certified lawyers defending the accused, specialists hired to review his or her mental state, psychological stability, factors in his life back to childhood that could contribute to the crime and other issues.
Coffee said those costs mount dramatically and that doesn’t include the cost of post-conviction appeals all the way through the federal court system that further run up the tab.
He said the best estimate is seeking a death sentence adds not only years to the litigation but nearly a half million dollars to the total cost.
Federal Public Defender Michael Pescetta said since the death sentence was restored in 1977, Nevada has had 186 death sentences imposed. He said 88 — nearly half — were reversed.
Pescetta said since the penalty was restored, only one of the 11 inmates put to death in Nevada had exhausted all his appeals. The other 10 were “volunteers” who gave up their remaining appeals and allowed the state to kill them.
Both men made it clear they in no way intend to diminish the pain and suffering of victim families.
“There are no nice first degree murders,” said Pescetta. “Nobody can discount the kind of damage these victims and their families experience.”
But the state’s DAs came out strongly against the bill. Washoe County DA Chris Hicks, president of the Nevada District Attorneys Association, said polls show a majority of Nevadans — 70 percent — strongly support the death penalty. He also said prosecutors in Nevada use the death penalty “sparingly and judiciously.” He said in prosecuting some 300 Washoe County murders, his office has actually sought a death sentence five times. He said he doesn’t believe there are any added costs from prosecuting and defending a death case.
Hicks said he especially objects to the fact the bill would commute death sentences imposed by jurors in the past to life without parole.
Clark County DA Steve Wolfson said supporters who say it would save money are essentially arguing “for placing a price of justice.”
He said under his leadership, Clark has cut the number of notices of intent to seek execution in half and despite the seemingly large number of those notices over the years, only had 15 inmates actually sentenced to die between 2002 and 2015.
“Should saving money be a reason to abolish the death penalty? I say no,” Wolfson said.
He said people aren’t complaining about the fact Nevada has a death penalty. “They’re complaining we’re just not doing it,” he said.
He said the state needs to fix the system instead of eliminating it.
He also rejected Coffee’s and Segerblom’s statements Nevada and other states can’t get the drugs for lethal injections because pharmaceutical manufacturers won’t sell them to states to kill inmates. He said Prisons Director James Dzurenda has told him he believes he can get the necessary drugs if an execution order is issued.
The last execution in Nevada was in 2006.
The committee took no action on AB237.