Nevada Senate panel advances death penalty bill |

Nevada Senate panel advances death penalty bill

RYAN PEARSON, Associated Press Writer

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — A Senate panel has advanced a measure prohibiting Nevada judges and juries from sentencing a mentally retarded person to death. But lawmakers delayed voting on another bill that gives the defense the last word in death penalty cases.

The Judiciary Committee on Thursday unanimously approved the prohibition against executing mentally retarded, an effort to bring Nevada in line with a U.S. Supreme Court decision. The panel added minor amendments to AB15, which was already approved by the Assembly and heads to the full Senate for a vote.

Under the measure, defense attorneys claiming their client is mentally retarded would have to make that client available to an expert chosen by prosecutors. Both sides would then make their arguments to the trial judge.

Lawyers for the state and defense could cross-examine one another’s witnesses, and the hearing on mental retardation would parallel trial proceedings.

The Senate panel also began a review of AB14, which gives defense lawyers the opportunity to open and close the arguments during the penalty hearing of a death penalty case.

Philip Kohn, Clark County special public defender, said allowing the prosecution to argue first and last was appropriate during the trial phase. However, he added that in the penalty phase, “The opportunity to have the first word and the last word is a tremendous advantage.”

Several lawmakers indicated they were inclined to give prosecutors that advantage, but Kohn urged them to consider the special circumstances of a death penalty case. “Don’t we all think it’s better, if we make an error, we err on the side of life? We err on the side of mercy?” he asked.

Judiciary Chairman Mark Amodei, R-Carson City, said he was sure his panel would advance AB14 but may amend it after reviewing how other states arrange argument. He said the committee would continue review through at least May 2.

The bill also adds mental illness to the list of mitigating circumstances that must be weighed when considering whether to impose a death sentence. A jury or judge must determine that any aggravating factors outweigh any mitigating circumstances before a death sentence can be imposed.

Sen. Maurice Washington, R-Sparks, said mental illness may already be included in existing law as “any other” mitigating circumstance.

Michael Pescetta, a federal public defender specializing in death penalty cases, responded that mental illness “deserves the dignity of a statutory mitigating factor, rather than the catchall ‘other’.”

Senate Judiciary was to begin consideration Friday of an Assembly measure prohibiting execution of juveniles.