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Death penalty debate reemerges in Nevada after past stalls


By SAM METZ AP/Report for America

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — A Nevada legislative committee introduced a proposal Wednesday to end the death penalty with nearly identical language to a 2019 bill that stalled and never received hearings in the state Senate or Assembly.

Lawmakers who oppose the death penalty say they’re confident that 2021 is the year they will finally carry the effort across the finish line.

They have campaigned to end the death penalty in the past two legislative sessions, only to see their efforts thwarted before reaching the floor for a vote.

Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore Steve Yeager during the 32nd Special Session of the Legislature in Carson City. (Pool Photo by David Calvert/Nevada Independent)

Assemblyman Steve Yeager, a longtime anti-death penalty advocate, hopes recent litigation that forced Nevada to return drugs that are part of its lethal injection combination — along with pushes to end the death penalty in other states — will convince lawmakers the proposal should be voted on.

“I know we’d like to have a hearing. That’s the plan at the moment. Of course, it’s subject to everything else going on in the building,” the Las Vegas Democrat said, referring to the way the pandemic has slowed the pace of legislative activity.

The Assembly Judiciary Committee’s bill would remove provisions of state law that allow people found guilty of first-degree murder to be sentenced to death.

Although about 80 inmates remained on its death row as of 2020, Nevada has not executed anyone since 2006. The state has faced difficulties procuring lethal injection drugs. Last year, a state court ordered the Department of Corrections to return drugs used as part of Nevada’s lethal injection combination. The department has a batch of fentanyl that expires on June 30, but does not posses the other two drugs called for in its execution protocol.

Death penalty opponents hope the growth of the criminal justice reform movement and renewed attention on the death penalty will generate enough political will to enact a ban. In the final months of President Donald Trump’s tenure, the U.S. Justice Department resumed executions after a 17-year federal hiatus. The 13 executions carried out drew newfound attention to the death penalty, said state Sen. James Ohrenschall, D-Las Vegas, who is sponsoring a similar bill in the Senate.

“I think a lot of people were shocked. The fact that there’d been this moratorium for so long, and then all of a sudden, it’s the opposite,” brought momentum to push to end the death penalty, he said.

The Nevada Legislature is one of 15 statehouses 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.

Both 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 to hearing and having a discussion,” Cannizzaro said.

Sam Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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