Nevada lawmakers debate death penalty ban
CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) – Nevada lawmakers next week will review an effort to ban or limit capital punishment in Nevada – a move fueled by long-standing philosophical and religious objections and by recent evidence and claims of flawed death sentences.
The Senate Judiciary Committee plans a hearing Tuesday on a bill to ban the death penalty in Nevada – a penalty carried out over the years in the state by hanging, shooting, gas and now by lethal injection.
Sen. Joe Neal, D-North Las Vegas, sponsored SB254. Several prominent Assembly members signed on, but he got no senators in the GOP-controlled upper house to be co-sponsors.
Assembly Judiciary plans a hearing Wednesday on three bills restricting death sentences.
AB327 would change a state law that now permits courts to impose a death sentence on defendants as young as 16. Under the bill, the minimum age would be 18.
The measure was proposed by Las Vegas-area Assembly members Chris Giunchigliani, Morse Arberry, Doug Bache, John Oceguera and Wendell Williams; Reno-Sparks area Assembly members Sheila Leslie and Bernie Anderson; and Sen. Neal. All are Democrats.
Also up for a hearing is AB353, which prohibits a death sentence for anyone who is mentally retarded. The bill came from Leslie, Anderson, Giunchigliani, Arberry, Williams and Neal.
A third bill, AB354 provides for genetic marker analysis of evidence in capital cases. It was proposed by Las Vegas-area Assembly members Bob Price, David Brown, Vonne Chowning and Mark Manendo. All but Brown, a freshman Republican in the Democratic-controlled Assembly, are Democrats.
Before 1903, at least 20 condemned prisoners were executed in the counties where they were convicted. Starting in 1905, 50 men have been executed in the Nevada State Prison in Carson City. Most died prior to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling against capital punishment in 1972.
Eight men – all but one of them ”volunteers” who opted not to pursue further appeals – have been executed since the high court reinstated capital punishment in 1976. The last was Alvaro Calambro, convicted of two brutal murders in Reno. Opponents of Calambro’s 1999 execution argued unsuccessfully that he was ”borderline retarded” and suffered from serious mental illnesses.
There are now 87 men and one woman on Nevada’s death row. Next in line for execution is Sebastian Bridges, for shooting a man in Las Vegas who had been romantically involved with Bridges’ estranged wife. A judge on Thursday scheduled his execution for mid-April.
Thomas Nevius, sentenced to die for the 1980 killing of a Las Vegas man trying to stop the attempted rape of his wife, also faces a possible execution soon.
Nevius has one remaining appeal, to the state Pardons Board on April 11. His defenders maintain jurors at Nevius’ trial weren’t told he suffered brain damage as a child and was mentally disabled with the mental capacity of a 7-year-old.
Proponents of a death penalty ban also point to the case of Jack Mazzan, 54, who spent two decades on death row before his sentence, for the murder of Richard Minor Jr. in Reno, was canceled last year.
Defense lawyers showed that prosecutors withheld key evidence that suggested drug dealers might have been involved in Minor’s death. While he’s off death row, Minor still faces the prospect of a retrial this summer.
Sen. Neal says he’s hopeful the death penalty ban will pass and that current death sentences will be changed to no-parole life terms. He adds he has the support of Catholic Church leaders, among others, who have sought similar legislation in past sessions without success.
”Most people don’t realize the death penalty is based on vengeance, and they don’t understand that our system of justice is not supposed to be based on that,” he said. ”We try crimes and put penalties in place to make society better. The death penalty doesn’t do it for us.”
Anderson agrees, saying the death penalty ”has not proven to be a deterrent to crime, and life without the possibility of parole is clearly a more cost-effective way to deal with the issue.”
Ben Graham of the Nevada District Attorneys Association counters that there are many cases in which a death sentence is appropriate – such as people convicted of heinous crimes and ”with humanity long gone from their souls.”
But Graham also said there’s a split among prosecutors on the issue, with some strongly advocating capital punishment and others ”not as strong for it – especially because we now have some no-parole life sentences that really are no-parole life sentences.”
Assemblywoman Leslie says her AB353 would bar Nevada juries from imposing a sentence of death on a person convicted of a capital offense who has an IQ of 70 or lower.
Leslie said similar laws have been approved in 13 other states and in Washington, D.C. The federal penitentiary system also does not execute mentally retarded convicts.
”The real question is whether society should be executing the mentally retarded (in capital cases), or are they in a special class and should get life in prison without the possibility of parole?” said Leslie.
Brian Lahren, representing a broad coalition of developmental disability advocates, said there’s no question in his mind about the need for AB353.
”Normally, the death penalty is reserved for ringleaders who engage in a conscious process of plotting violence and mayhem on others,” he said. ”How do you apply that to someone who has a difficult time learning the basic rules of society in the first place, someone who needs support in every part of their life?”
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