The Assembly Judiciary Committee on Wednesday heard testimony on Chairman Steve Yeager’s bill to eliminate the death penalty in Nevada.
AB395 would also commute the sentences of the 73 men currently on death row to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
But the testimony was contradictory in some cases with supporters of the bill arguing death cases are much more costly than regular first degree murder cases while the district attorneys in Washoe and Clark counties testified the cost increase is minimal.
In addition, supporters of abolishing the death penalty argued only about one-third of Nevadans support execution for murder and that the number is dropping while the DAs said two-thirds support retaining the penalty. Clark County DA Steve Wolfson said in his experience, families of the victims want his prosecutors to seek death.
But there was no real pushback on UNLV professor Tyler Perry’s charge that Nevada’s death penalty system is racially biased. Perry told the committee that, in Nevada, 37 of the 70-plus death row inmates are black while only 9 percent of Nevadans are black.
Anti-execution advocate Nancy Hart, a former deputy Attorney General, made a similar statement.
Retired Supreme Court Justice Michael Cherry testified that imposition of the death penalty is not equal in Nevada. He said as a lawyer, he represented a man in 1980 who was convicted and sentenced. That man, he said, has been on death row 41 years now.
He isn’t the longest serving inmate on death row. That would be Edward Wilson, convicted of the stabbing death of Reno Police detective James Hoff, who has been on death row since June 1979.
Scott Coffee, who has studied Nevada’s death penalty system for years, said capital cases are treated very differently than first degree murder cases. First, he said, the defendant has two lawyers, one of whom must be capital case qualified. He said much of the added cost comes from the background investigations and mitigation studies they have to do including alcohol testing, intellectual capacity exams, mental illness exams. He said appointed counsel are also paid hourly and paid more than normal appointed counsel.
“The background investigations are vastly different in non capital cases.”
In addition, Coffee said the appeal of a death case is automatic as is the appeal to federal court if the Nevada Supreme Court upholds the sentence and that decision’s appeal to the 9th Circuit and Supreme Court if necessary. He told lawmakers in some cases, the defense essentially has a blank check.
In Washoe County, one of those death cases involves Wilber Ernesto Martinez Guzman, the illegal alien from El Salvador who is accused of four murders in Washoe and Douglas counties.
His lawyers are arguing they need to go to El Salvador to interview family and friends to determine whether Guzman has the intellectual capacity to potentially face a death sentence.
He was also asked about a comment Justice Cherry made that very few cases are tried as capital murder cases in rural Nevada counties because of that financial impact.
Coffee said rural counties don’t have the money to prosecute a death case. As a result, he said there are two or three cases pending in the rest of the state but 62 in Clark County. He said a rural county could be bankrupted by the costs of a death case.
Washoe DA Chris Hicks said crimes such as what Guzman did and James Biela did to Brianna Denison, “are so heinous they warrant death.” But he said there will not be a financial windfall by eliminating executions.
Lawmakers also heard emotional testimony from the survivors of several murder victims including Carolyn Sullivan whose husband George, a UNR police officer, was hacked to death by Sianosi Vanisi with more than 20 blows to the head and neck.
And Candy Rankin told them her sister Connie was one of four murder victims of a man seeking drug money.
Both sides agreed there are significant problems with Nevada’s death penalty law. Bill supporters said the problems are so ingrained that the only answer is to throw it out. Opponents argued the solution is to fix and streamline the law so that the defendants are executed much more quickly.
The committee took no action on AB395.