Lawmakers seek to abolish Nevada's death penalty

CARSON CITY, Nev. (KOLO) Convicted murderers sentenced to death in Nevada could have their sentences commuted to life without parole if two lawmakers have their way. Assemblyman James Ohrenschall and State Senator Tick Segerblom, both Democrats, presented Assembly Bill 237 before the Assembly Judiciary Committee Wednesday. The bill would abolish capital punishment in Nevada and commute existing death sentences to life without parole.

"The truth remains, the death penalty is a costly, intrinsically unfair and ineffective deterrent," Assemblyman Ohrenschall said.

For more than three hours, lawmakers heard testimony on whether the state should continue to serve as an executioner.

"If killing is something which our society condemns, how then can we as a society turn around and kill people?" Sen. Segerblom asked the committee.

Supporters cited several problems they say plague the death penalty- namely the cost. An audit recently found the death penalty process costs nearly half a million dollars more than non-death penalty cases. The audit estimates it costs about $1.3 million dollars if a defendant is sentenced to death but not executed. Opponents of the bill say those costs mostly come from the trial and appeal process. According to the report, cases where prosecutors don’t seek the death penalty cost about $775,000.

"Because death is different; because we don't get do-overs if we make a mistake, there's a heightened level of due process," Scott Coffee, an attorney in the Clark County Public Defender’s Office, said.

But he also testified that Nevada's death penalty is "little more than a label".

Coffee cited the fact that since 1977, Nevada has only executed 12 people. The most recent was Daryl Mack in 2006. Mack was found guilty of the 1988 murder of Betty Jane May. Other opponents of the death penalty say because executions are not common, inmates are essentially serving life sentences already.

"A person sentenced to death in Nevada is more likely to die of natural causes than to be executed," Assemblyman Ohenschall said. According to numbers from the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the District of Nevada, 11 inmates have died of natural causes since 1977.

But Washoe County District Attorney Chris Hicks, who opposes AB 237, says there's a reason for the delays in executions.

"The biggest problem is the appeals process," he said. "What we should be there for is not ending the death penalty, but fixing it. We shouldn't be throwing our hands in the air and saying its broken, we're going to let it go. I'm all for appeals, but there's far too many. It goes on year after year after year which isn't right. It isn't fair."

In the state of Nevada, the appeal process can take decades. In fact, of the 12 people executed, 11 were essentially voluntary, meaning the inmates decided to cease the appeal process. In October 2016, a prisoner named Scott Dozier submitted a request to a judge that his appeal process end and he be put to death.

The state's district attorneys came out against the bill. Both Hicks and Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson said they are judicious about seeking the death penalty.

"In the last 20 years, my office has prosecuted over 300 murders," Hicks said. "In that same time period, we only sought the death penalty 5 times. When those worst offenders come along, it's the appropriate penalty."

One of those cases was Tamir Hamilton, who was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of 16-year-old Holly Quick in 2006.

The other was James Biela, who was convicted for the rape and murder of 19-year-old Brianna Denison. Biela was sentenced to death in 2010. He was also sentenced to four consecutive life terms in prison for the rape of two other women.

"What that means in Washoe County, less than 2 percent of the time, we spend three times the amount of money," Hicks said.

Since 1977, the state has prosecuted 186 death penalty cases and most of the state’s death penalty cases come from Clark County. Of the 82 inmates currently on death row, 62 are cases out of Clark County. Wolfson says since he was elected, Clark County has cut the number of notices of intent to seek execution in half.

But neither Wolfson nor Hicks say they buy the cost of capital punishment cases as a reason to abolish the death penalty. Hicks said that is essentially "a price on justice for victims."

Wolfson also argued budgets wouldn't be reduced, or any money saved if the death penalty was abolished and life without parole became the strongest punishment.

"Now that's the worst of the worst," he said. "So defense lawyers are going to have to spend the same money, to fight the same fight, to avoid the ultimate punishment."

He said people aren't complaining about the fact Nevada has a death penalty. "They're complaining we're just not doing it," he said.

"The only part in the death penalty discussion that's compelling to me is moral objections," Hicks said. "If somebody doesn't agree with it, that's okay. I'm not going to push my will on them; I happen to agree with it. But when you begin to make cost arguments that are inaccurate, or say oh we can''t get the drugs even though you can, you begin to disregard the victims."

The bill's sponsors also argued the lack of drugs essentially creates a de facto moratorium on the death penalty.

"We had to spend 800 thousand dollars to build a death chamber, but we can't buy the drugs to use the death chamber," Sen, Segerblom said.

Last session, the legislature authorized nearly $860,000 for a new execution chamber at the Ely State Prison, which houses Nevada’s death row population. But it has yet to be used since the state does not have the drugs to execute inmates. Nearly 30 pharmaceutical companies, including Pfizer, have publicly stated they won't sell the drugs needed for the lethal cocktails to correctional facilities.

"In fact last September, the state issued 247 requests for proposals to supply these drugs required for the lethal injection and received no bids from pharmaceutical companies," Assemblyman Ohenschall said. "Beyond the logistical problem of the state being unable to obtain the drugs required, to carry out a death sentence is an inexplicable truth that the death penalty is unfair, ineffective and extremely costly to our taxpayers."

Both Wolfson and Hicks dismissed the idea that the state cannot get the drugs. They testified before the committee that James Dzurenda, director of the Nevada Department of Corrections, has assured both of them that if he were to get an order of execution, he would have "a mechanism to get the drugs".

But the committee didn't just listen to statistics and numbers. There was emotional testimony from people on both sides of the debate.

"We want to be tough on crime so we lower ourselves to killing someone to punish and demonstrate that killing is wrong," Father Charles Durante, who opposed the bill on grounds of faith, said. "We do not rape a rapist, or beat up someone who has beaten someone else up because it would be inhuman."

Other opponents cited cases where people on death row have been exonerated- most notably Cathy Woods, who was cleared of murder, thanks to DNA, after serving nearly 30 years in prison for murder.

"She was saved by luck and science," one opponent of the bill said. "The lucky part is the crime occurred in 1976 and we didn't have the death penalty then."

Family members, clinging to photos of their murdered loved ones, pleaded with lawmakers to oppose this bill.

"We are convicted for life," Terri Bryson, whose daughter was murdered in 2013, said. "We have to live with the ramifications of somebody else's choices against our children. I had to pull my other surviving daughter off of her dead sister's body, or hear the wails of her father still echoing in my mind."

Jennifer Otremba says her family only recently received justice for the 2011 murder of her 15-year-old daughter Alyssa. Her body was found 100 yards away from her Las Vegas home. Alyssa's murderer had stabbed her 80 times, carved an "LV" into her body, before dousing it in gasoline and burning it.

"The coroner had to use dental records to identify her mutilated body," Otemba said. "During the autopsy, they found the tip of the knife in her skull. Nothing will bring her back, But there are some people that they commit such heinous crimes that they deserve to live on death row and not know when their last days will be coming."

"There's another side to these statistics," Bryson said. "There's something more than the monetary loss and gain. Please hear our cries from the value of grief."

Otemba said eight days ago, Alyssa's murderer was sentenced to death. But even testimony from family proved a deep divide on this issue.

"We wanted the death penalty," Cynthia Portaro said. "My family wanted revenge." Portaro's 22-year-old son, Mike,was murdered in 2011. She says during the trial, she had a change of heart.

"I started to think about my faith," she said. "I started to think, we are called to forgive. We are called to be different. I sat and I thought, what if a mother, who's devastated by what happened to [her] son forgave a black kid for killing him? What would that do to society? Would that not show peace?"

She said she realized nothing would bring her son back, but she could help someone else.

"I want to be able to sleep at night knowing a life was saved, not taken," she said "Too many lives are taken."

Lawmakers on the committee raised concerns over the bill.

"I can''t understand why it's so humane if a kid at 21 commits a murder and you keep him in a cage for the next 70 years, that that somehow is more humane and that we should say that's the right thing to do," Assemblyman Ira Hansen (R) said.

Assemblywoman Brittney Miller (D) questioned a study presented by Hicks and Wolfson that showed nearly 70% of Nevadans support the death penalty.

Others said this should be an issued decided by the people.

"Because this is a fundamental social question, I'm wondering why are we not putting this to the voters to decide?" Assemblyman Keith Pickard (R) asked.

"I would actually be willing to support the bill if you add one amendment to it," Hansen said. "And that is you put it on the ballot as a referendum."

The committee took no action on the bill.