Nevada judge rules Pardons Board can’t commute death row inmates’ sentences

Kurt Hildebrand / The Record-Courier
Washoe County District Attorney Chris Hicks is interviewed outside of Carson City District Court after District Judge James Wilson ruled the Pardons Board didn't have the authority to commute the sentences of death row inmates to life in prison without parole.
Kurt Hildebrand/The Record-Courier

Citing the requirement to notify the families of crime victims of any changes in an offender’s status, District Judge James Wilson granted an emergency petition preventing the Nevada Pardons Board from unilaterally commuting the sentences of 57 death row inmates.

Wilson also denied a state request to stay his ruling, saying doing so would render it moot.

On Friday, Washoe County District Attorney Chris Hicks filed a petition seeking to stop the pardons board from hearing the issue at their Tuesday meeting, arguing the board didn’t have the authority to commute the sentences without notifying victims, among other issues.

Wilson zeroed in on the 15-day noticing requirement early in the hearing, questioning Deputy Attorney General Greg Ott about whether anyone had been noticed by the state.

Ott said that he wasn’t aware that anyone had been noticed that the Nevada Board of Pardons was agendized to discuss commuting the sentences from death to life in prison without parole.

He said the action wouldn’t prevent future death sentences.

Gov. Steve Sisolak, who serves as chairman of the pardon’s board, placed the item on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting last week, with three days notice.

The Pardon’s Board consists of the governor, the attorney general and the members of the Nevada Supreme Court.

Sisolak vetoed a measure approved by the Legislature that would eliminate the death penalty in Nevada.

Wilson ruled that Marsy’s Law, which was added to the Nevada Constitution by voters in 2018 after passing two sessions of the Nevada Legislature, applies to all crime victims.

He agreed with Washoe County Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Noble’s argument that the right to be heard included in the law made notifying victims implicit.

He reasoned that if the law applies to the victim of a petite theft, it certainly would apply to the family of a victim of a capital crime.

He also agreed with Noble that the Washoe District Attorney’s Office had standing to bring the case, expanding that to the entire state.

Washoe County has 10 inmates on death row.

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.

Jackson and Carson City District Attorney attended Monday’s hearing.

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.

“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.”

Death penalty opponents heralded the effort, saying in the last 40 years only one person has been executed against their will.

“In reality, this discussion is a long time coming. Nevada hasn’t carried out an execution for more than 16 years,” said Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty Campaign Director Mark Bettencourt. “With severe staffing shortages and a lack of basic necessities within NDOC facilities, this is the prudent and fiscally responsible move. Maintaining the death penalty system is extraordinarily expensive and does nothing to make us safer.”

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