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Bill to abolish the death penalty stalls in Nevada Senate


Nevada will not join Washington D.C. and 22 other states in abolishing the death penalty.

Gov. Steve Sisolak and Democratic leaders in the state legislature announced Thursday that Assembly Bill 395 will not pass this session.

Gov. Steve Sisolak on Sunday, March 29, 2020. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Pool) @rookie__rae

“At this time, there is no path forward for Assembly Bill 395 this legislative session,” Sisolak, a practicing Catholic with well-known reservations about repealing the death penalty, said. “I’ve been clear on my position that capital punishment should be sought and used less often, but I believe there are severe situations that warrant it.”

Sisolak said he believes the process of determining which crimes are severe enough to warrant the death penalty deserves thoughtful consideration.

“As Governor, I strongly believe that this discussion requires robust communication and input so that the voices of victims’ families and the advocates of the proposed measure can be heard. I remain committed to working on reforming the criminal justice system to ensure fairness in policing and sentencing,” he said.

AB 395 was nearly identical to a bill introduced during the 2019 session by former Assembly member Ozzie Fumo. That bill and a similar one introduced in 2017 died without receiving hearings.

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, 189 people in Nevada have been sentenced to execution, but many of these sentences were reversed upon appeal. The state has only carried out 12 executions since 1976.

AB 395 passed in the Assembly in mid-April on a party-line vote, with all 16 Republican Assembly members voting against it.

It stalled in the Senate—something advocates of the bill feared might happen, as its passage hinged on support from Senators Nicole Cannizzaro and Melanie Scheible. The two Democrats work as criminal prosecutors in Clark County under Clark County District Attorney Steven Wolfson, who is a proponent of the death penalty.

Cannizzaro, who is majority leader in the Senate, released the following statement on AB 395:

“Over the past few weeks, we’ve had a series of discussions regarding a viable path forward on AB 395, and I appreciate the bill sponsor’s willingness to work on potential amendments to restrict the application of the death penalty while balancing concerns about complete abolition. Unfortunately, we have not yet found consensus on the bill, and it is unlikely that we would in the remaining few weeks of the session.

“This decision understandably will disappoint many advocates, but it will also not change our commitment to moving other critical legislation this session reforming policing practices, the bail system, and other important aspects of our criminal justice system.”

Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson released a statement minutes after the governor’s.

“We have been working through potential amendments that could restrict the application of the death penalty, but it has been a difficult task with all of the many considerations that go into these cases.

“While we are disappointed that we could not get across the finish line this session on AB395, we have to accept that there is a process and many of our priorities don’t ultimately come to fruition. We will continue working on policies we believe are sound and continue working with our colleagues on meaningful reform to the inequities that exist in our criminal justice system.”

The bill had received support from Nevada Catholic Conference, Nevada Attorneys for Criminal Justice, the Black Caucus of the Democratic Party of Washoe County, Battle Born Progress and the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, among others.

Bob Fulkerson

Bob Fulkerson, development director and co-founder of Progressive Leadership Alliance, expressed his frustration at AB 395’s failure, calling out the governor and Democratic leadership in the legislature.

“They’re all a bunch of cowards,” Fulkerson said. “They’re afraid of the district attorneys. And I remember when Governor Sisolak went to a private screening of [True Justice, the documentary based on the book Just Mercy] with Bryan Stevenson in Las Vegas—and he cried his eyes out; he was so sad about the death penalty. So now it comes time for him to actually step up and have the courage of his convictions and do it—he cowers. … And I think it’s reprehensible, and I think he’s failed Nevada.”

Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty Project Director Mark Bettencourt released a lengthier statement concerning AB 395. He called Sisolak and Cannizzaro’s decision to scuttle the bill an “undemocratic” and “unacceptable” decision, noting that support for AB 395 has outweighed opposition three-to-one.

“Every day the movement to end Nevada’s flawed and costly death penalty grows stronger,” Bettencourt said. “Concerns about racial bias and the risk of executing innocent people are leading many Nevadans to the conclusion that it is time to end the death penalty. The Coalition and our partners will not rest until we achieve full abolition in Nevada and are beyond disappointed this bill did not receive a fair and public hearing in the Senate despite the ample time to do so.”

Proponents of the bill, like Fulkerson, have said they’re certain a similar measure will be introduced during Nevada’s next legislative session in 2023.

Jeri Chadwell
Jeri Chadwellhttp://thisisreno.com
Jeri Chadwell came to Reno from rural Nevada in 2004 to study anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 2012, she returned to the university for a master’s degree in journalism. She is the former associate and news editor of the Reno News & Review and is a recipient of first-place Nevada Press Association awards for investigative and business reporting. Jeri is passionate about Nevada’s history, politics and communities.