Nevada lawmakers set out to abolish the death penalty in the state of Nevada because of concerns over costs and moral issues. AB237 hoped it would not only abolish the death penalty but commute the death sentences of 82 inmates on the state’s death row to life without parole.
Although the bill was heard once at an Assembly Judiciary meeting on March 29, the bill was scuttled shortly after on April 14, the deadline for bills to make it out of their original committee.
State Senate Judiciary Chairman Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, and Assemblyman James Ohrenschall, D-Las Vegas, sponsored the bill. The bill would have made life without parole the strongest punishment in place for heinous crimes.
Since the death penalty was reinstated and ruled constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976, Nevada has executed 12 people. Eleven of the 12 death row inmates chose capital punishment over life in prison.
In total, 160 Nevadans have been sentenced to death in the last 40 years for various crimes including first-degree murder, armed robbery, sexual assault in the first-degree, murder of law enforcement, and in most instances a combination of heinous crimes.
In the Assembly Judiciary Committee meeting on March 29, many victims’ families spoke in support and against the bill. Washoe County District Attorney, Chris Hicks, spoke in opposition to the bill:
“The death penalty is not misused by prosecutors in the state of the Nevada. Throughout all our counties, the decision to seek the death penalty is made sparingly and judiciously. It is reserved for the very worst of the worst,” Hicks said. “In Washoe County, in the last 20 years, my office has prosecuted over 300 murders. In that exact same timeframe, we have sought the death penalty only 5 times.”
Hicks added the accounts of Holly Quick and Brianna Denison, the last two cases which drew a death penalty conviction.
Denison’s killer, James Biela, sexually assaulted two young females near the University of Nevada, Reno, campus prior to his attack on Denison.
The attack in question happened on Jan. 20, 2008, at a sleepover Denison was having at a friend’s house. Denison was sexually assaulted, choked to death with her own underwear, and abandoned in a field with a discarded Christmas tree pulled over her body.
Denison’s aunt was at the hearing on March 29, while Hicks shared statements from Denison’s family opposing AB237. Denison’s killer, James Biela, currently sits on death row in Nevada along with 81 other inmates. In addition to the death sentence for murdering Denison, Biela also received four consecutive life prison terms for the sexual assaults of the two women on the University of Nevada, Reno, campus.
Cynthia Portaro, a Las Vegas resident, spoke in support of abolishing capital punishment.
“Is killing someone going to bring my family back, bring my son back; no. It’s not, nothing is going to bring my son back,” Portaro said. “But maybe this kid can make a difference in the world, wherever he goes because I chose to say no to the death penalty.”
Portaro’s son was murdered in 2011 but instead of seeking the death penalty during the trial period, she chose to spare her son’s killer’s life.
Senator Segerblom, a sponsor of the bill, says the current system is ineffective and too expensive.
“We had to spend $800,000 to build a death chamber but we can’t buy the drugs to even use the death chamber,” Segerblom said in reference to the shortage of lethal injection drugs in Nevada. “If killing is something which our society condemns, how then can we as a society turn around and kill people?” Segerblom asked the committee.
Pharmaceutical companies in Nevada have been limiting access to lethal injection drugs.
With the completion of the $860,000 project to build a new execution chamber approved by Nevada lawmakers in 2015, Nevada’s death row inmates being held at Ely State Prison won’t be put to death anytime soon. The new death chamber that was built last year at Ely State Prison hasn’t been used, and the last person put to death in Nevada was in 2006.
Governor Brian Sandoval has not said whether he would sign or veto the death penalty repeal but during his campaign back in 2010, he supported the death penalty for the worst crimes.
No executions are scheduled in Nevada at this time, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Meaghan Mackey can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @NevadaSagebrush.