Victim’s son agonizes as father’s killer lives on
For the Nevada Appeal
Jim Monahan has been wondering a lot in recent days why Samuel Howard is still alive after almost 30 years on Nevada’s death row.
“My mother has died. Most of my dad’s friends have died, and he continues to live,” Monahan said. “He has outlived almost everyone in my family. It makes no sense financially for the state of Nevada to keep paying for these guys to stay alive.”
“Executing Howard will not bring my father back,” Monahan said, “but may bring a small amount of closure to me and my family.”
March 27 marked the 30th anniversary of the day Las Vegas police arrived at 12-year-old Jim Monahan’s door and told him, his sister and mother that his father had been found shot to death in a van parked along Boulder Highway.
George Monahan, a 39-year-old dentist, had given a test ride to a man who expressed an interest in buying the family van. Monahan was robbed of $2 and shot in the head.
Samuel Howard, then 31, was arrested five days later in Downey, Calif. Police said that on at least 20 previous occasions, Howard requested test drives and robbed used car salesman and others who were selling cars.
On May 4, 1983, Howard was sentenced to die for murdering George Monahan.
Howard, now 61, remains incarcerated at Ely State Prison. Nevada provides him free room, board and medical care – even flying him by helicopter to University Medical Center in Las Vegas when he slipped into a coma in 1991.
Letters he has written have been posted on Web sites for advocates for prisoners. He professes to be a born-again Christian.
“God will help you make the right choices, but he will not help you make the wrong ones,” Howard wrote in a letter in which he warned teenagers against drugs and premarital sex. “The choice is yours. You can follow Him now or suffer later. I don’t want you or anyone to make the dreadful mistakes I have made in my life.”
Jim Monahan, now a marketing executive in Boise, Idaho, has never received a letter of apology from Howard. Monahan even wrote him last year. He continues to grieve.
“I just wrote ‘You killed my dad. I am ready to start a dialogue with you,'” Monahan said. “You would think if he is a born-again Christian that he would be remorseful.”
Howard is one of 80 male prisoners on death row at the Ely prison. Twenty-nine of them were given death sentences before 1990. Seven have been on death row longer than Howard.
Last year, state Assemblyman Bernie Anderson, D-Sparks, introduced a bill to require the state to study the costs of keeping prisoners alive as they file legal appeal after legal appeal in a quest to keep from being injected with a lethal dose of poison.
Anderson opposes capital punishment and figured, based on studies in other states, that Nevada could save million of dollars in legal expenses if it abolished capital punishment.
The Assembly approved Anderson’s bill, but it died in the state Senate. Several legislators questioned the need for a study because it was clear the cost of paying legal expenses for death row inmates was extremely expensive.
The state of Iowa, for example, found the lifetime costs of incarcerating and paying legal expenses for a death row inmate was $2.4 million, or $900,000 more than it costs for someone sentenced to life imprisonment.
According to the Nevada Department of Corrections, it cost $26,800 last year to house each inmate at the state’s maximum-security prison in Ely.
Nevada prisons chief Howard Skolnik said he can do nothing to speed up the process that leads to executions, because inmates are legally entitled to appeals.
“It is unfortunate the families of victims have to wait through the process for any form of closure, but our responsibility is to carry out the sentence and respect the offender’s right to appeals,” Skolnik said.
Michael Pescetta, an assistant federal public defender in Las Vegas, represents Howard and has represented other inmates on death row. Pescetta declined to comment about Howard’s case.
But during the hearings on Anderson’s bill, he outlined the expenses of death penalty cases:
After a Nevada district court judge has sentenced someone to die, the case is automatically appealed to the state Supreme Court for a review by all seven justices.
If he or she loses, the inmate can seek a new hearing by filing a writ of habeas corpus.
The inmate can appeal unfavorable rulings to federal district court, then the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, then the U.S. Supreme Court.
Federal courts often send cases back to the state for more district court and state Supreme Court review if the inmate didn’t exhaust all available state remedies.
Most often, the inmate claims ineffective counsel, that the trial judge didn’t properly advise jurors, or that one or more aggravating factors necessary to invoke the death sentence were inappropriate.
Pescetta told legislators that Nevada has executed 12 inmates since the death penalty was established in 1977. Only one was executed involuntarily. The other 11 decided to give up remaining appeals.
Records show that 143 people have been sentenced to death in Nevada since the current death penalty law was passed. With 80 men still on death row, the figures mean that 51 either died while in prison or have had their sentences reduced to life imprisonment or less.
Republican state Assemblyman John Hambrick, a former U.S. Secret Service member, said justice is not served when the families of victims have to wait 30 years for closure.
GOP Assemblyman Ty Cobb, a Reno lawyer, opposed Anderson’s bill in part because he thinks capital punishment may reduce trial costs by encouraging guilty defendants to plea bargain to a reduced offense.
Cobb said the long appeal process allowed death-row inmates by the courts was not something the Legislature can change.
Jim Monahan knows about mandatory appeals, legal costs and the costs of incarceration.
He also remembers returning to school three days after his father’s death.
“I never saw a counselor. I probably should have. I could have gotten into a lot of trouble in high school. I didn’t.”
He moved to Oregon after high school and then to Idaho. He returns to Las Vegas for reunions of the Bishop Gorman Class of 1985. Invariably, the talk turns to his father, the murder and Howard.
“I have some high school friends who are lawyers and watch what is happening with him,” he said.
Monahan has three young children. They sometimes ask about their grandfather.
He won’t tell them yet what happened, he said. They are too young to understand.
“It is not going change anything if that guy is alive or dead. I know that,” Monahan said. “But I would rather see him eaten by rats than to die peacefully.”
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