RENO — A convicted murderer who has been on death row in Nevada for 34 years returned to court Monday to try to get his execution sentence reduced to life in prison after a federal appeals court ruled his rights were violated during the penalty phase of his original trial.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld 67-year-old Tracy Petrocelli’s murder conviction two years ago in the 1982 killing of a Reno car salesman, months after he killed his girlfriend in Seattle.
But the San Francisco-based court ordered a new sentencing hearing partly because it concluded Petrocelli’s attorney should have been present and he should have been read his Miranda rights when he was interviewed in jail by a psychiatrist who later testified for the prosecution.
Petrocelli has filed multiple appeals since he was sent to death row in 1985. Nevada hasn’t executed anyone since 2006.
A former Reno detective who says he’s biased in favor of the death penalty was among 19 prospective jurors eliminated from the pool on Monday, the first-day of jury selection for the 12-member panel and three alternates that will hear testimony expected to last three weeks.
The retired police detective told Washoe County District Judge Egan Walker he isn’t sure that he testified at the original trial but knows the details of the case — the robbery and murder of the Reno car salesman, James Wilson.
“I’d love to serve in a death penalty case, but I don’t think the defense would want me,” the ex-detective said.
Walker said it sounded like it would be impossible for the detective to be impartial in hearing the evidence. He replied, “I’m very prejudiced.”
The state recently moved to the forefront of the death penalty debate when the lethal injection of a twice-convicted murderer who said he wanted to die was called off twice — in late 2017 due to challenges of a three-drug combination never before used in the U.S., and in July 2018 after drug companies sued to block their products from being used.
The inmate at the center of those cases, Scott Raymond Dozier, later killed himself in prison.
Walker said he summoned 180 potential jurors for Petrocelli’s resentencing — more than twice as many as usual — in anticipation of the difficulty of seating an impartial jury.
Prosecutors and the defense team each will be allowed to throw out eight potential jurors without a reason, while Walker will dismiss any he feels couldn’t put aside their own personal beliefs or have some other conflict that might prejudice their view of the case.
“I’ll probably be fairly liberal at striking folks,” he told the lawyers at a hearing Monday before jury selection began. It will resume Wednesday when the lawyers get a chance to question potential jurors directly.
In addition to the ex-detective, Walker excused a woman Monday who said she was a family friend of the police officer who “picked up the defendant” after he was arrested in Las Vegas in 1982 for the fatal shooting of Wilson during a test drive north of Reno near Pyramid Lake in March 1982.
He also excused five who have trouble understanding English and 12 more for various other reasons, including physical ailments and undue financial hardship.
Walker said the jury resentencing Petrocelli will choose from death, life in prison without parole or life in prison with parole.
Petrocelli also was convicted of kidnapping and fatally shooting Melanie Barker in Seattle in late 1981, and in 2008 he was convicted of murder in the 1981 killing of Dennis Gibson in San Bernardino County, California.