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Governor’s last-minute pardons board effort draws criticism, legal challenge and some support

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UPDATE: The court ordered the Pardons Board to remove the item from the meeting agenda. The original story is below.

Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak last week added a controversial item to the agenda for this week’s Pardons Board hearing: the potential commutation of prisoners sentenced to death to a reduced sentence of life without parole. 

The Pardons Board, which includes Sisolak, Attorney General Aaron Ford and all seven of Nevada’s Supreme Court justices, will meet Tuesday to discuss the matter as part of its regular business. 

Dennis George said he hopes Sisolak’s effort will be unsuccessful.

“Speaking as a member of the victim’s family, in this case, it’s very, very unsettling to consider the possibility that Mr. Wilson is not executed,” George said. 

George’s step-brother was James Hoff, a Reno Police officer killed in the line of duty in 1979 during an undercover operation gone wrong. Of the four men convicted of his kidnap and murder, two were sentenced to death – John Olausen and Edward Tom Wilson – but only Wilson remains on death row. Olausen in 1989 successfully appealed his death sentence but remains imprisoned without the possibility of parole. 

“[Wilson has] been living and enjoying a 40-plus year life that he took away from Jimmy Hoff,” George said, speaking for himself and other members of Hoff’s family.”It really aggravates me to consider the possibility that his sentence may be commuted to life without parole.”

Anti-death penalty advocates have been working to abolish Nevada’s death penalty for years, only to have efforts stalled in the state legislature during the past two sessions. In 2021 after AB 395 failed to pass, Sisolak 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.”

Nevada’s death penalty was reinstated in 1976 and since then 12 people have been executed by lethal injection, the most recent being in 2006. 

Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty’s Mark Bettencourt said the discussion to empty out the state’s death row has been “a long time coming.” 

“Nevada hasn’t carried out an execution for more than 16 years. With severe staffing shortages and a lack of basic necessities within NDOC facilities, this is the prudent and fiscally responsible move,” Bettencourt said. “Maintaining the death penalty system is extraordinarily expensive and does nothing to make us safer.” 

Washoe County District Attorney Chris Hicks on Friday filed an emergency petition in Carson City’s First Judicial District Court to halt the pardons board’s consideration of Sisolak’s agenda item arguing that it violated the state’s constitution. 

His office is also contacting family members and victims of death row inmates to testify about the commutation of death sentences.

“The proposed categorical elimination of 57 death sentences by a mere majority of an eight-member public body is unjust and undemocratic,” Hicks said.

Ten of the state’s 57 death row inmates were prosecuted and sentenced in Washoe County, including Wilson. 

“The addition of item VI, requiring consideration of ‘all sentences of death,’ was posted to the Board’s website a mere three business days prior to the meeting, providing victims, prosecutors, and the general public with inadequate time to prepare, object, or otherwise respond,” Hicks wrote in a petition to Carson City’s First Judicial District Court. “It does not provide for the ‘thoughtful consideration’ that Governor Sisolak previously acknowledged should be afforded such decisions. That consideration must include input from the prosecuting agencies and opportunity for victims in 57 of the most aggravated, egregious murders in Nevada history to be heard.”

George said he was in support of Hicks’ effort to get the item removed from the agenda. He added that decisions about the state’s death penalty should be decided through the legislature and statute.

“This is not something for a pardons board or the courts,” he said. “It’s a move by the governor to implement what he was unsuccessful trying to do during the last legislative session. So I hope this Attorney Hicks is successful in removing it from the agenda.”

Nevada Open Meeting Law requires written notice of meetings and an agenda to be posted at least three working days prior to the meeting. The agenda items must also include “a clear and complete statement of the topics scheduled to be considered during the meeting.”  Sisolak’s addition to the agenda was made late Wednesday, Dec. 14.

Incoming Nevada governor Joe Lombardo, who will replace Sisolak on the pardons board in January, has pledged to restore law and order by repealing Sisolak’s “soft-on-crime policies,” adding that he’d keep violent criminals off the streets and get rid of reduced sentences and leniency for career criminals.

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Kristen Hackbarth
Kristen Hackbarth
Kristen Hackbarth is a freelance editor and communications professional with more than 20 years’ experience working in marketing, public relations and communications in northern Nevada. Kristen graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno with a degree in photography and minor in journalism and has a Master of Science in Management and Leadership. She also serves as director of communications for Nevada Cancer Coalition, a statewide nonprofit. Though she now lives in Atlanta, she is a Nevadan for life and uses her three-hour time advantage to get a jump on the morning’s news.

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