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June 21, 2018

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The slow death of capital punishment: Delays, costs and shifting public opinion riddle the system


Steve Marcus

A mock-up of an electric chair is displayed at the Mob Museum in downtown Las Vegas in 2012. The display refers to the 1944 execution of mob boss Louis “Lepke” Buchalter.

The recent spate of Arkansas executions, which included two on the same gurney, 3 1/2 hours apart — the first time in almost 17 years that any state has executed two inmates on the same day — has returned the death penalty to the forefront of national consciousness.

Waves of delays and activists’ outcries continue as the use of capital punishment has sharply declined throughout the country. Polls indicate a shrinking majority of Americans prefers to preserve the option to extinguish those found guilty of the vilest crimes in civilized society.

In Nevada, the conundrum of capital punishment is rife with subplots, starting with last year’s expensive refurbishment of a death chamber whose application is far-fetched, since drugs necessary for lethal injection aren’t available.

Death sentences bogged down with decades of dust enrage victims’ families, some of whom would be satisfied with a sentence of life without parole, if, in fact, that were the state’s top punishment.

In the movies, a governor’s powers are never more dramatic than when that call is placed to the prison, a tick or two before midnight, the reprieve doled out. The inmate spared. In Nevada, in reality, what’s in the chair today is the death penalty itself.

11 Years Since the Last Execution

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The viewing room looking toward the newly completed execution chamber at Ely State Prison is seen Nov. 10, 2016. Nevada hasn't carried out an execution since 2006, and two state lawmakers have proposed abolishing capital punishment altogether.

Polling the death penalty

According to Pew Research Center (2016) and Gallup (2014) polls:

• 49% of Americans favor the death penalty for murder convictions

• 42% oppose the death penalty

• 9% were unsure

Asked what form of execution they consider most humane, respondents said:

• Lethal injection: 65%

• None (volunteered opinion: 10%

• Firing squad: 9%

• Hanging: 5%

• Electric chair: 4%

• Gas chamber: 4%

• No opinion: 3%

Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval is a stalwart supporter of the death penalty, yet not one execution has been carried out during his watch, eight years that expire in January 2019.

The courts have not ordered a single execution to be scheduled. By contrast, Ohio has 26 on its dockets from 2018 through 2021; at press time, the Buckeye State had no fewer than a dozen people on its 2017 execution list.

Nevada last executed a prisoner in April 2006. It’s a costly system with many broken parts, which might be eroding the appetite for capital punishment.

Appeals that seem unending effectively keep death row inmates alive for decades. When 75-year-old Priscilla Ford died from natural causes in 2005, after 25 years of incarceration for running over dozens of people in Reno, she hadn’t even begun to tap her federal-review options.

Last year, $858,000 of taxpayer funds was spent on refurbishing the death chamber — to bring it in compliance with Americans With Disabilities Act standards — at the maximum-security Ely State Prison, which houses the state’s death row.

Should a court order an execution, it’s debatable that it could even be carried out because the necessary drugs are not in supply. In 2016, Nevada Department of Corrections personnel sent 247 requests for proposals to drug companies but received no responses.

With such a court order, in theory, the Department of Corrections would have 60-90 days to complete its directive. Its director, James Dzurenda, has reportedly told Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson that the drugs required for an execution — midazolam and hydromorphone — could be obtained. As one option, Dzurenda said he might be able to ask another state for drugs it wouldn’t anticipate using.

In the Legislature, Assemblyman James Ohrenschall and Sen. Tick Segerblom, Las Vegas-based Democrats, wrote Assembly Bill 237 to abolish the death penalty. But the bill foundered, and it expired in mid-April.

Perhaps that opposition will resurface, with more strength, in the gubernatorial election next year. Nationally, execution numbers are on a dramatic wane. In 2016, 20 prisoners were put to death, the lowest figure in 25 years. So far this year, at press time, states had put to death only 10 inmates.

Sandoval’s successor will undoubtedly influence the future of the issue. One likely candidate is Steve Sisolak, the Democratic chairman of the Clark County Commission. At an April 21 function, he expressed staunch opposition to the death penalty. “More opposed,” he said, due to the many ills of the system. (He did convey deep sympathy to family and friends of victims of heinous crimes.)

That might help or hurt him, or another candidate who espouses a similar view, depending on the populace tide.

Executions in the U.S., 1976-July 1, 2016

Total court costs in Nevada

• $1.3 million: Estimated cost of a case in which the death penalty is sought and an inmate is sentenced to death, but is not executed

• $1.03 million: Estimated cost of a case in which the death penalty is sought, an inmate is sentenced to death and an execution is carried out

• $775,000: Estimated cost of a case in which the death penalty is not sought, including incarceration

Costs of incarceration

• The 12 executions carried out cost an estimated $324,000 per inmate.

• The 16 who died in prison cost an estimated $599,000 per inmate.

• The estimated cost per inmate for those sentenced to life without parole, including facility, medical and burial costs, is $598,000

The U.S. Supreme Court restored capital punishment in a landmark ruling in 1976. We’re the only Western country that uses the death penalty.

Thirty-two states have death penalty statutes. They are denoted in red. The 18 states in black represent those without death penalty statutes. New Mexico has repealed the death penalty, but those already sentenced remain under sentence of death. The map above shows how many people have been put to death in each state over the past 40 years (additionally, there have been three federal executions).

There were 2,905 prisoners on death row through 2016 — 2,850 male and 55 female. Of those, 42 percent were white, 42 percent black, 13 percent Latino, 2 percent Asian and 1 percent Native American.

In Nevada, 160 people have been sentenced to death in the past 40 years. Twelve executions have been carried out, 16 people died from natural causes or suicide), 82 are currently on death row at Ely State Prison, and 50 cases have been overturned.

Those convicted must decide

The only woman ever executed in Nevada

Elizabeth Potts was put to death next to her husband, Josiah, on twin gallows after being convicted of murder and robbery in 1890. Some outlets reported that she was decapitated at full drop.

The last person to be executed in Nevada

A pimp who had been incarcerated for killing a prostitute, Daryl Mack was convicted of an earlier rape and murder by DNA; thus, the death sentence. “The worst of the worst,” Washoe County Chief Deputy District Attorney Dan Greco called Mack. He was executed in 2006.

The most dangerous prisoner in Nevada

Patrick McKenna, 70, is considered the nation’s third-most sinister criminal. In 1979, he murdered a cellmate. He has attempted many escapes. For court he has been strapped to a wheelchair and forced to wear blinders, chains around his belly, ankle shackles and mittens so he can’t grasp anything.

Scott Dozier had been incarcerated for almost 10 years when he became fed up with the system. On Oct. 31, he instructed legal representatives to halt what seems like an infinite appeals process; he wants to be killed, and by firing squad.

However, unlike Andriza Mircovich, who was able to choose rifles over the noose in Nevada in 1913, or 15 other states that have alternative execution methods on their statutes, the Silver State is now limited to lethal injection.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court restored capital punishment in a landmark 1976 ruling, 11 of the 12 inmates executed by Nevada had relinquished appeals rights. Multiple murderer Richard Moran, in 1996, was the lone person to be involuntarily executed in that time frame.

In taped telephone conversations that have been made public, Dozier sounds intelligent, thoughtful and rational. He admits to his mistakes and says living in solitary confinement the rest of his life is no way to live, so let’s get on with it.

It’s the same tack used by Jesse Walter Bishop, the last person the state executed by gas. In 1977, he robbed a teller at El Morocco, shot a pit boss, and shot and killed a bystander. He was sentenced to death. Bishop chose not to appeal and forbade his court-appointed lawyers from prolonging the case with more petitions.

Bishop believed it comical to claim that the death penalty constituted cruel and unusual punishment when it’s the inmate and his attorneys who trigger such interminable delays that produce false starts and umpteen execution dates. It’s a prisoner’s volition, he said, to die for his crimes.

“They want to force me to appeal, to wait just so the lawyers can play their games,” Bishop said. “I feel that is cruel and unusual punishment. … I never asked for the death penalty. They gave it to me. I’m only asking that they either give it to me or commute it. They got me dead bang on a cold murder beef I can’t beat. I’m not going to turn to God, or to snivelin’ or snitchin’ or rattin’. They got their gas chamber … they should get it over with.”

He was strapped to the chair on Oct. 22, 1979.

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The weight on victims’ families: An elegy for Nancy Griffith

Brief history of capital punishment

• Code of Hammurabi: Thirty-eight centuries old, the 71/2-foot stone stele — which lists 282 laws and scaled punishments — contains the first known reference to the “eye for an eye” tenet. It was unearthed in Khuzestan, a current province in Iran, in 1901 and is stored in the Louvre in Paris.

• Electric Chair: After the chair’s debut at Sing Sing in 1891, a New York Herald headline exclaimed “A proud day for the Empire State!” Thomas Edison called it “more certain and perhaps a little more civilized than the rope.” But he’d omit, from his biography, his major role in its development, and he spoke little of it the rest of his life.

• Gas: Gee Jon became the first person executed in such a chamber, by state decree, at Nevada State Prison in 1924. “One hundred years from now,” the San Jose Mercury Herald opined, “Nevada will be referred to as a heathen commonwealth controlled by savages with only the outward symbols of civilization.”

• Guillotine: Nicolas Pelletier first perished by the blade in April 1792. When Hamida Djandoubi — the last, in September 1977 — pressed his executioner for a third smoke, Marcel Chevalier said, “Ah mon, we’ve already lost enough time.” A shocked Victor Hugo saw a blade drop five times on a criminal, who escaped; an assistant finished the job with a butcher’s knife.

• Hanging: Brits brought the noose to the Virginia Colony, where it was first used on convicted thief Daniel Frank in 1629. Australia fervently adopted it. England’s last execution was in 1964, and Australia’s in 1967. A U.S. hanging last occurred in 1996, but it’s still an option in New Hampshire and Washington.

• Shooting: According to the book “Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty,” rifles killed 34 U.S. prisoners between 1890 and 2010; the lone flawless method. After Gary Gilmore was shot in January 1977, his eyes and other vital organs were harvested. It’s still an option in Oklahoma (as is electrocution and gas) and Utah.

ELY — Almost 38 years after he violated, beat, burned and left 16-year-old Nancy Griffith to die 20 miles outside of town, the existence of Robert Ybarra Jr. 9 miles north of here continues to haunt this tiny mining town.

It grates on Robin Griffith, who is married to Nancy’s brother, Alan. In her early 60s, she prays to live long enough to see Ybarra die — or be “put down” like a vicious stray, as one local put it — by lethal injection in Ely State Prison.

“Not because I want to watch somebody die but because I knew my sister-in-law … it would be, for her, an ending,” Robin says.

Had Ybarra been given a life sentence without the possibility of parole, it would be very different, she says, not this never-ending nightmare. But he was sentenced to die. “If you’re going to give the death penalty, give it,” Robin says. “Don’t take it away.”

She mentions Javier Righetti, who raped, beat and burned 15-year-old Alyssa Otremba in Las Vegas in 2011. In March, a jury sentenced Righetti to die. At 24, he will be the youngest death row inmate when he’s processed into the system. Robin cringes about the decades of jurisprudent heartbreak that await Otremba’s friends and relatives.

“I feel for those people,” she says. “Either do it or get rid of (the death penalty). They don’t understand what the victim’s family goes through every time there’s an appeal — every single time.”

On Sept. 28, 1979, Nancy and friend Johna Cordova were listening to music, drinking beer and talking with Ybarra at Courthouse Park.

Both girls knew the 25-year-old itinerant worker, since they had cleaned his dwelling once or twice. The girls must have known the guy with the mustache and long dark hair dabbled in an array of drugs and drank too much. They couldn’t have known he had attempted suicide a few weeks earlier, when his wife took their infant and left him.

From what Robin would later gather, Nancy accidentally knocked over a beer, angering Ybarra. The outburst frightened Johna, and she made him take her home. Both girls got in the red pickup truck with the white camper shell. Outside her house, Johna slid out of the cab. Nancy remained.

Robin knows why she made that fatal decision.

Ten pounds at birth, the 10th and final child of Harold and Edna Griffith carried some extra weight into her teens. Robin always cut Nancy’s hair and would compliment her legs, always reinforcing a positive attitude and outlook. Nancy envied girlfriends who had boyfriends and yearned for such attention.

She found that — in whatever fraction — in Ybarra.

“She was a young girl who wanted to be loved,” Robin says. “That’s all she wanted. Finally, a guy liked her. She fell for it and lost her life because of it.”

Ybarra drove his rig west to the utter desolation of 30 Mile Road, steering north for 3 miles over the bumpy dirt pathway. They were making out in the back when Ybarra’s mood and actions dramatically turned. Nancy kicked out the rear window and ran. He caught her, raped her, cracked her skull and kicked in her teeth. She was on her knees, by a gully, when he poured gasoline over her and lit a match. He drove away.

She remained alive and alert, enough to identify her attacker to passersby early that Saturday morning. One noted what looked like a glove in the dirt; it was the skin of Nancy’s hand, burned off with fingernails intact. She died a few hours later in a Salt Lake City hospital.

“Utah does have the firing squad. That seems to work; shoot ’im in the heart and get it over with,” Robin says. “I don’t love the face of death, but it would be the ending of Nancy’s story.”

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