Nevada Has High Rate Of 'Volunteer' Executions

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Convicted killers sent to death row in Nevada are more likely to die of natural causes than be executed against their will.

But there's a third option: inmates who voluntarily accept their punishment and are put to death by the state. Nevada trails only one state, Texas, in executing such "volunteers."

Nevada has executed nine men since capital punishment was reinstated by the state in 1977. Eight of those willingly gave up appeals that would have postponed their executions.

Data maintained by the Death Penalty Information Center, which is opposed to capital punishment, show that Texas has executed 22 volunteers since the mid-1970s. Nevada, with eight, is tied with Oklahoma for second place.

A ninth member may soon join Nevada's condemned "volunteers." Lawrence Colwell Jr., who strangled and robbed elderly Florida tourist Frank Rosenstock in Las Vegas in 1994, told a judge in February he wants his execution carried out.

Cowell reaffirmed that desire during a hearing in U.S. District Court in Reno on Friday, although leaving himself an out until just a day or two before his March 26 execution.

Les Sharp, president of a victims' rights group called Families of Murder Victims, said the reason Nevada mainly executes volunteers is that defense attorneys keep raising issues on appeal, even though the guilt of the convicted killers isn't in question.

"The defense attorneys who do all these appeals listen to court records for hours looking for flaws to get these death sentences overturned," he said. "It's definitely not a fair system.

"I don't know why people want to abolish the death penalty in Nevada," Sharp said. "We don't even achieve the death penalty unless an inmate wants it."

Clark County District Attorney David Roger said anti-death penalty federal appeals court judges continually block capital punishment from being carried out for those who fight their cases. In Nevada's case, it's the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that's "the impediment to our reasonably diligent resolution of these cases," he said.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, said the high number of volunteers in Nevada is puzzling, but he offered a few possibilities.

One factor could be that Nevada's overall suicide rate, which is one of the highest in the country, is mirrored in the death row population, he said, adding that conditions at Nevada's death row also could play a role.

"Perhaps those on Nevada's death row receive (fewer) visits, less personal contact with their attorneys ... because friends, relatives (and) lawyers live farther away," Dieter said.

The number of voluntary executions in Nevada represents nearly 10 percent of the total death row population of about 82, a far greater ratio than other states with large death row populations.

In Texas, where there are 450 inmates on death row, the number of volunteers represents less than 5 percent of the total. Oklahoma's rate is under 8 percent when compared to its death row population of 105.