by April Corbin Girnus, Nevada Current
An effort by outgoing Gov. Steve Sisolak to commute the sentences of the dozens of Nevadans on death row was stymied this week by a district court judge. But death penalty abolitionists and family members of murder victims nevertheless used the failed proposal to speak about a criminal justice effort that has divided politicians across the state in recent years.
Last week, Sisolak requested that the Nevada Board of Pardons consider commuting the death penalty sentences of all 57 death row inmates to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Sisolak called the move “an act of grace to intervene where failure to do so will be irreversible.”
The board, which the governor sits on alongside the attorney general and seven justices of the state supreme court, meets “semiannually or oftener,” according to its website.
In 2021, the pardons board met four times, including Tuesday’s meeting.
Sisolak’s request for the commutation agenda item was immediately met with opposition, and Carson City District Court Judge James Wilson Jr. on Monday ruled that proper notice wasn’t given to the families of victims, as required by state law.
Wilson’s ruling was sparked by an emergency petition filed by Washoe County District Attorney Christopher Hicks, a Republican, who called leaving the decision to a simple majority of the pardons board “unjust and undemocratic.”
Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson, a Democrat, took a similar position and filed a similar emergency petition with the Nevada Supreme Court to block the agenda item.
Sisolak’s request followed news earlier last week that outgoing Oregon Gov. Kate Brown would use executive clemency powers to commute her state’s 17 death sentences. Oregon already had a moratorium on executions and has not put anyone to death since 1997.
Brown, who will be succeeded by fellow Democrat Tina Kotek, had made clemency a main focus of her governorship, according to the Oregon Capital Journal, issuing pardons or commutations for nearly 50,000 people — most of them for minor marijuana convictions prior to state legalization.
Nevada does not grant its governor such unilateral clemency powers.
Sisolak on Tuesday said he was “disappointed” in the district court ruling and said he had “concerns” about the legal justification. But he added that he “respects the judicial process.”
“My hope is, as I leave this board, that bringing it up will encourage the Legislature to have the discussion, to have the discussion with the various groups that are supportive of the death penalty and what they feel, and the people that aren’t supportive of the death penalty and what they feel, and they have this discussion,” said Sisolak. “Whether it’s the Legislature, whether it’s a referendum that’s put on the ballot that everybody can vote for, or whether it’s a pardons board. I would hope that somebody, some group, would take the initiative and handle the difficult decision that at some point needs to be addressed.”
Sisolak’s comments Tuesday clashed with recent history. As governor during the 2019 and 2021 session he was one of several hurdles to death penalty abolition.
Assembly Democrats in 2021 passed a bill to abolish the death penalty but the bill stalled in the Senate. While Democrats solidly controlled the upper chamber, Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro and state Sen. Melanie Schieble, who chaired the committee the bill would need to pass, both had conflicts as employees of the Clark County prosecutor’s office. And Sisolak took the position that the death penalty should be an option in extreme cases.
It was Sisokak himself who publicly declared the issue dead, issuing a press release announcing that there “was no path forward.”
Sisolak on Tuesday said that Nevada’s death penalty system isn’t working. He noted that the many death row inmates have been sentenced to die for several decades. Nevada has not executed an inmate since 2006.
Efforts to execute convicted murderers in Nevada have happened as recently as 2019 and 2021. In both years, legal challenges arose over the drugs to be used in the lethal injection.
Giving someone a death sentence and not carrying out the sentence for three or four decades is “not justice for anyone,” said Sisolak.
“We do not have the wherewithal to carry out a death sentence,” he added. “We don’t have the facilities. We don’t have the drugs. So it can’t be done. That’s the reality.”
Fifty-seven people are on death row in Nevada. All are men.
Nearly all were indigent and represented by public defenders, according to the ACLU of Nevada. They are also disproportionately people of color and disproportionately from Clark County. Many death penalty abolitionists have pointed to these disparities as reasoning for why the practice should be outlawed.
Others weigh in
Attorney General Aaron Ford, a Democrat, said at the pardons board meeting that he “appreciated the conversation.” He said he had to be cautious with his comments because of his overlapping roles as a member of the pardons board, attorney for the pardons board, and attorney for the governor.
But in a statement issued by his office earlier Tuesday, Ford said he is “personally opposed to the death penalty.”
“I do not believe justice is served when families have to endure ongoing litigation over the death penalty in the aftermath of horrendous crimes,” he said. “Moreover, the process is unnecessarily burdensome to the state. The time has come for change. While we did not discuss commutations in today’s meeting, I am open to supporting measures to decrease or abolish the death penalty in Nevada in the future.”
None of the supreme court justices publicly commented on the issue.
Gov.-elect Joe Lombardo, a Republican who will be sworn in on Jan. 3, in a statement praised the Monday decision to block commutations from being discussed.
“I’m thankful to Judge James Wilson for upholding the law,” he said, “and I’m grateful that he protected the voter-approved constitutional rights of crime victims and their families. I’m relieved that justice has prevailed through Marsy’s Law.”
Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto also publicly opposed Sisolak’s proposal, telling KSNV in a statement that, “As a former prosecutor, I believe the death penalty should be on the table for those who have committed the worst of the worst violent crimes. I have always stood up for victims and their families to be informed, attend, and be heard at all stages of the criminal justice process.”
Numerous family members and victims of violent crime spoke during public comment Tuesday, many rehashing the graphic details of their loved one’s brutal murders and the devastating effect those crimes had on surviving family and friends.
Meloaae Cook recalled the triple homicide of her mother and two sisters, aged 12 and 20, at the hands of her father more than three decades ago in 1990.
“Where’s the pardon for them,” she said of the deceased. “They were not afforded the opportunity to stand in front of you and say ‘I don’t want to die today.’ They were not afforded the opportunity to live the 11,765 days that it’s been since they were killed.”
Cook, like several other family members of victims, told the board they believe commutations should be handled on a case-by-case basis.
Others took more pro-death penalty positions, saying Nevada’s problem was that it isn’t following through with executions.
On the other side of the issue, several legal groups, two wrongfully convicted men who’ve since been exonerated by Nevada, and two people who had a family murdered also spoke in support of abolition and urged future action by lawmakers.
“The criminal justice system is filled with pain,” said John Piro, a public defender in Clark County, acknowledging the parade of traumatic stories from victims’ families. “To continue to use pain as a hammer to cure pain seems like such a barbaric way to solve our problems. We are all in need of unmerited grace. The thing about grace is that it seems unfair until we need it too.”
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