Las Vegas Sun

October 16, 2019

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Death penalty’s future debated before Assembly committee

Ely prison execution chamber

Nevada Department of Corrections via AP

The viewing room looks into the execution chamber at Ely State Prison, Nov. 10, 2016. Nevada hasn’t carried out an execution since 2006.

A bill that would end Nevada’s death penalty was met with criticism and support Wednesday when it came before a committee of lawmakers.

Family members of murder victims shared often emotional testimony about the importance of punishing offenders with sufficient sentences, while one mother whose son was killed stressed forgiveness.

Assembly Bill 237 would abolish the death penalty in Nevada while reducing the sentence of any person sentenced to death to a sentence of imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole.

Assemblyman James Ohrenschall, D-Las Vegas, and Sen. Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, sponsored the bill, saying death penalty cases are expensive, discriminatory and ineffective.

“A person sentenced to death in Nevada is more likely to die of natural causes than be executed,” Ohrenschall said. Drugs for lethal injections are not available, he said, and exoneration rates show African-Americans are more likely than Caucasians to be wrongfully convicted of murder.

Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson, a former criminal defense attorney, said the director of the Corrections Department told him he believes the drugs for an execution could be found.

Prosecutors and several other opponents of the measure said that eliminating the death penalty would not reduce costs, and that justice for families shouldn’t be quantified in dollars and cents.

Defense attorneys argued for the bill’s passage, noting the increased workload in capital cases and the reality of wrongful executions.

Cynthia Portaro, whose son was shot and killed in Las Vegas, spoke in support of the bill during the hearing. Thursday marks the six-year anniversary of her son’s death. She had asked prosecutors not to seek the death penalty for her son’s killer, saying she wanted to see a life saved, not taken.

Jennifer Otremba told lawmakers that the man who raped and killed her 15-year-old daughter, Alyssa, in 2011 was sentenced to death eight days ago. She said some crimes are so heinous that the perpetrators deserve to sit on death row not knowing when their sentences will be carried out.

Assemblywoman Jill Tolles, R-Reno, said during the hearing that the Washoe County District Attorney’s Office prosecuted the man who murdered her family member 10 years ago.

“Forgiveness does not mean the absence of consequences,” she said.

Assemblyman Keith Pickard, R-Carson City, asked about putting the issue to voters, and Assemblyman Ira Hansen, R-Sparks, said he’d support the bill if it included an amendment calling for a public vote.

"The governor has historically supported the death penalty for criminals who have committed the worst crimes," a spokeswoman for Gov. Brian Sandoval said. "He trusts the state’s judicial system to determine a punishment that is equal to the crime and does not support an attempt to abolish the death penalty."

Nevada’s Department of Corrections said Tuesday that there were 81 inmates at the state prison in Ely, which just completed a new $860,000 death chamber.

The state’s last execution was April 26, 2006, by lethal injection of Daryl Mack, convicted of a Reno death. That execution took place at the now-closed state prison in Carson City.

The longest-serving death row inmate is Edward Wilson, who arrived at the prison in 1979. He was 20 years old when he fatally shot an undercover police officer in Reno.

Nevada has executed a dozen inmates since the Supreme Court lifted its ban on capital punishment in 1976.

Segerblom said he doesn’t see how it can be justified that a society that condemns murder would then put people to death. He noted the money that was spent on the death chamber but that now the drugs cannot be purchased to use it.

“We’ve been doing this for a long time,” Segerblom said. “It’s important that you reconsider this issue every few years because it is a moral issue and it’s an expense issue.”

No action was taken by the committee.

This story was updated to include comments from Gov. Brian Sandoval's spokeswoman.

Sun reporter Cy Ryan contributed to this report.

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