Nevada lawmakers debate bill that would abolish death penalty

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Cathleen Allison / Associated Press File

The execution chamber at Nevada State Prison in Carson City is rarely used, partly because many on death row die of natural causes before appeals are through.

Thu, Apr 1, 2021 (2 a.m.)

Introducing legislation Wednesday that would abolish the death penalty in Nevada, Democratic Assemblyman Steve Yeager warned that the hearing would turn “emotional and difficult.”

“To feel that pain in today’s hearing is what makes you human,” he said at the Assembly Committee on Judiciary. “It is what makes you empathetic. I hope we never lose the ability to feel empathy and share in another’s pain.”

Assembly Bill 395 would eliminate capital punishment and convert death penalty sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Prosecutors across Nevada — including Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson — spoke against the bill, while public defenders voiced their support. Nevada, which hasn’t executed anyone since 2006, has about 80 inmates on death row.

On the 10th year anniversary of her son’s slaying Wednesday, Cynthia Portaro told lawmakers she supported the legislation. Whether her son's killer is imprisoned for life or executed, “there is no closure. It doesn’t matter," she said.

The hundreds of thousands of dollars — at least $500,000 by some estimates — spent prosecuting each death penalty case could better be directed toward compensating families for the years of therapy they may require to heal, she said.

To honor her son, she counsels parents who have also lost children, “mainly young kids,” she said.

The legislation also impacts the families of inmates waiting to be executed.

Heather Snedeker testified that she was able to meet her father, a Texas death row inmate, for half an hour 22 years ago. The Las Vegas woman was a young girl and got to talk to him in prison during one of his last days alive, through a phone and plexiglass.

She had imagined him to be a “vicious monster,” but that’s not who she met. “I saw a man; a human being, my dad. I saw the same blue eyes staring back at me that I saw every time I looked back in the mirror," she said.

“Be good kiddo,” she remembers him telling her as he was led away in tears.

“When you execute someone, you’re not punishing them. You’re punishing the families, the children like me who are left to suffer and pick up the pieces of our shattered lives,” she said.

Monique Normand, a licensed social worker, lost her uncle to a murder in 2017. The family, including her father, quickly realized they didn’t want to see anymore death. “Honestly, it wasn’t going to bring my uncle back to us. It wasn’t going to heal our pain,” she said.

Family members of four slaying victims in Northern Nevada in 2019, allegedly perpetrated by the same man, also spoke against the bill.

Steve David, the son of one of the victims, spoke about being a corrections officer and interacting with convicted killers. “These people have no remorse," he said.

“The system, I believe, is flawed and broken and it needs to be fixed in order to work,” he said.

About cost, he said, “What is the value of my dad. Place a value in their lives if you can.”

Some argued the system is flawed and leaves open the door to execute innocent people. Others said executions are outdated remnants of a racist system across the U.S., or “legal lynchings.”

Tyler Parry, assistant professor for African American studies at UNLV, noted that though Black people in Nevada make up about 10% of the population, they are nearly 40% of death row inmates.

Wolfson, a proponent of the death penalty, spoke about “graduated punishments.”

“If the appropriate punishment for a single murder is life without parole, how do you punish a person who commits multiple murders? Should we punish someone who kills one person the same as someone who kills two, three, 10 or 60?” Wolfson said, alluding to the Oct. 1, 2017, massacre on the Strip. “I say no.”

“If the killer of the 1 October massacre had not cowardly taken his own life, I would have not hesitated to have sought the death penalty in that case. I would have personally prosecuted that killer," Wolfson said.

His counterpart in Washoe County, District Attorney Chris Hicks, said: “Simply put, some crimes are so heinous and inherently wrong that they demand strict penalties, up to death.”

Nevada is one of 15 states where bills to abolish the death penalty have been introduced in 2021, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Gov. Ralph Northam on Wednesday signed a bill abolishing the death penalty in Virginia, and the Wyoming Legislature voted down a proposal last week.

Democrats control both chambers in the Nevada Statehouse, but many have hesitated to take a stance on the death penalty. In the historically law-and-order state, memories of the 2017 Route 91 mass shooting are still fresh.

State Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, D-Las Vegas, and Gov. Steve Sisolak have recently sidestepped questions about their stances on the issue.

“There are a lot of differing opinions on that. Personally, it’s something that I’m open to hearing and having a discussion,” Cannizzaro said.

After the hearing, Yeager thanked those who shared their stories. In making his final plea of the day, he quoted Jackie Crawford, who spent 40 years in corrections, including as the director of the Nevada Department of Corrections.

“The government ought not to be in the business of killing, bringing yet more unnecessary pain to a world that already has plenty of pain," he said.

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