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Gov. Sisolak looks to commute death penalty to life without parole as term nears end

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This story has been updated to include a statement from Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson,

With just weeks before the end of his term, Governor Steve Sisolak is seeking to commute the death sentence for everyone on death row in Nevada into life without parole.

The Nevada Board of Pardons will meet to discuss and possibly vote on the issue during their meeting next Tuesday.

The governor and board have the authority to commute sentences and grant pardons. It also consists of Attorney General Aaron Ford and Nevada’s Supreme Court justices.

A spokesperson for Sisolak’s office said he requested the item be added just six days before next week’s meeting.

“The Governor believes this is a worthy item for the Commissioners to consider and will be voting in favor of the measure,” said Meghin Delaney, communications director for the governor. “The Governor has always said that capital punishment should be sought and used less often, and he believes this is an appropriate and necessary step forward in the ongoing conversation and discussion around capital punishment.”

This comes after Assembly Bill 395 failed to advance out of the 2021 legislative session despite passing out of the Assembly. Some Senate lawmakers who also serve as prosecutors stalled the bill and Sisolak at the time signaled it wouldn’t reach his desk when he said “there is no path forward” in May that year.

Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson spoke out against the bill along with other Nevada district attorneys. “The criminal justice system relies upon graduated punishment, and if the appropriate punishment for a single murder is life without parole, how do you punish a person who commits multiple murders?” he said to the Assembly Judiciary Committee in March 2021.

Prosecutors often utilize the death penalty to secure plea deals as well, according to legal experts. On Friday, DA Wolfson provided a statement saying commuting any sentence is rare, especially cases involving a death sentence. He said a person seeking a commuted sentence must apply to the board themselves.

“I have many concerns regarding this agenda item, including whether all Nevada Laws were followed," Wolfson said in the statement. "I, and my fellow Nevada District Attorneys, are considering several options leading up to the scheduled hearing next Tuesday. Have victims been notified of this attempt to commute the sentence of death on a person who murdered their loved one? Are victims being given a chance to voice their opinions on this matter? These concerns, among others, are being discussed, and all our options are being considered.”

Regardless, Sisolak's choice to move ahead with commutation in his final days has garnered large support from advocates across the political spectrum.

They argue the death penalty is inhumane, brings high costs to taxpayers, and pharmaceutical companies won’t provide the drugs needed for lethal injection, making it nearly impossible to move forward with an execution.

“We think that this takes a huge step towards more equity in our legal system, while also acknowledging that there are some severe fiscal needs and shortages and issues across NDOC (Nevada Department of Corrections),” said Mark Bettencourt, campaign director for the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty. “We're on the 15th, 16th day of a hunger strike at Ely. And so the reality is that the money that we're spending on the death penalty system is better spent on any other one of these pieces that we clearly know needs help.”

Bettencourt said some estimates suggest it costs taxpayers nearly half a million dollars more once the death sentence is pursued compared to any other sentence, including life without parole.

According to the Legal Defense Fund, there are 65 inmates on Nevada death row at Ely State Prison. A majority of them are minorities, which Bettencourt said is another issue with death penalties.

“Since 2012, in Clark County, nearly 70% of the people who've had the death sentence sought —that's not people who had a sentence—but sought against them, were people of color,” Bettencourt said. “And we know that that's not the demographic composition of Nevada.”

Nevada hasn’t had an execution since 2006. It’s one of 27 states that has capital punishment on the books, though some states like Oregon have a moratorium. Outgoing Oregon Governor Kate Brown commuted all of the death sentences in her state on Tuesday this week.

Then, there’s the issue of securing the proper drugs for lethal injection, which has essentially prevented many executions.

“The issue right now is and some of the reasons that certain executions have been held up is because they couldn't get a drug cocktail together,” said Athar Haseebullah, executive director for the ACLU of Nevada. “One of the big issues that we've seen over the course of time as pharmaceutical companies don't want their products misused for lethal purposes.”

Haseebullah also pointed out the fact that there have been cases where someone on death row was later found innocent.

Conservatives are also supporting Governor Sisolak’s push to commute the death sentences. A national group called Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty (CCADP) said capital punishment goes against conservative beliefs, arguing it’s “big government” at its core.

“Why would I trust the government and I say this with no exaggeration or hyperbole with a matter of life and death?” asked Demetrius Minor, the national manager with CCADP. “Also, the death penalty is a violation of the ethics of consistent life ethics. For conservatives who consider themselves to be pro-life, the death penalty is antagonistic towards that view.”

Minor said based on current trends around the country, it’s not a matter of “if, but when” states will abolish the death penalty.

Tuesday’s vote from Nevada’s Board of Pardons won’t eliminate capital punishment in the state, but advocates may renew their push for a bill in the 2023 legislature. It’s unclear how incoming Governor-elect Joe Lombardo views the issue. His office had no comment, but he had previously spoken out greatly against “soft-on-crime” policies.

The board is one member short since Patricia Lee, Sisolak’s appointment to replace retired Nevada Supreme Court Justice Abbi Silver, has not yet taken the bench. The vote needs a simple majority to pass, but without a ninth member, it’s mathematically more difficult, now requiring 5 out of 8 to vote in favor.

Athar Haseebullah with the ACLU of Nevada said he isn’t sure how all of the justices would vote but noted some of the justices previously served as prosecutors.

Attorney General Ford’s office said they won’t comment until after Tuesday’s meeting.

Haseebullah commended Governor Sisolak for pushing this forward during a “lame duck” period of his tenure.

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“We just appreciate the governor for putting this on the agenda,” Hasebullah said. “Good testament to his character as he exits office.”

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