Nevada district attorneys oppose commuting death sentences

Record-Courier Report
Douglas County District Attorney Mark Jackson looks at his notes during the March 2022 sentencing of Wilber Martinez-Guzman. Martinez-Guzman was able to avoid the death sentence in four Western Nevada residents after prosecutors consulted with the victims' families.
Kurt Hildebrand/The Record-Courier

An emergency petition to prevent the Board of Pardons from considering commuting the sentences of 57 death row inmates to life without parole has been field in Carson City District Court.

The petition filed by Washoe County District Attorney Chris Hicks at 4:10 p.m. Friday is an effort to head off a Tuesday session where the board, which consists of the governor, attorney general and the Supreme Court, is scheduled to consider the action.

The board could commute the sentences on a simple majority, Hicks said.

Douglas County District Attorney Mark Jackson, who will be president of the state District Attorney’s Association next year, issued a statement on Friday opposing the action.

While no inmates on death row were convicted in Douglas County, Jackson and Hicks jointly prosecuted serial killer Wilber Martinez-Guzman, who shot Gardnerville Ranchos residents Connie Koontz and Sophia Renkin during burglaries in January 2019.

On Wednesday evening, Gov. Steve Sisolak added an item to the agenda to commute all sentences of death for murderers previously convicted and sentenced to death in Nevada before the governor’s term of office expires in a few weeks.

“The late addition of a Pardons Board agenda item of this magnitude is unprecedented,” Jackson said.

Historically, the Pardons Board notifies district attorneys, victims and the public at least 30-40 days prior to the scheduled meetings of any proposed actions wherein the board may consider granting applications for pardons or commutations of sentences.

“This noticing process allows district attorneys and victims the opportunity to submit a written statement of the facts surrounding the case for consideration, and any other information affecting the merits of the proposed action of the Pardons Board,” he said.

In addition, the Victims’ Bill of Rights enshrined within the Nevada Constitution guarantees reasonable notice to family members of murder victims of any post-conviction proceeding as well as giving the victims’ family members an opportunity to be heard at the post-conviction proceeding.

“The 11th hour actions by the governor in adding the death penalty commutations to the Pardon Board’s upcoming meeting agenda is unfair to the victims, their families, and the communities where these heinous murders occurred,” Jackson said. “I stand with the other district attorneys across this state in expressing our outrage and disappointment in the governor’s actions. There is a process and place for vetting and debating issues related to capital punishment. This is not it.”

There is one open Supreme Court seat. A simple majority of the eight members is sufficient to convert 57 death sentences, Hicks said.

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