Governor, top Democrat call Nevada death penalty repeal dead

Governor, top Democrat call Nevada death penalty repeal dead
State Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro during a joint press conference with Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson at the Legislature on the twelfth day of the 31st Special Session in Carson City on Sunday, July 19, 2020. (Pool Photo by David Calvert/Nevada Independent)

By KEN RITTER and SAM METZ, Associated Press

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Efforts to repeal Nevada’s death penalty law in the current Legislature are dead, Gov. Steve Sisolak and the top Democrat in the Legislature said Thursday.

The governor issued a statement saying he saw “no path forward” for a bill that passed the Assembly on party lines with Democrats in support but that had not received a hearing in the Senate ahead of a Friday deadline.

Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro said lawmakers did not reach a consensus. She called a pact unlikely before the Legislature ends May 31 and said lawmakers would focus on other measures affecting police practices and the court bail system.

Some advocates reacted with anger.

American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada chief Athar Haseebullah labeled Sisolak’s statement “a major flip-flop on an issue that is literally a matter of life and death.”

“By failing to even consider how to advance this bill before dismissing it, the Senate and governor have emboldened government attorneys to seek the execution of civilians through our state’s racist, arbitrary and expensive capital punishment system,” Haseebullah said.

Indeed, on Friday, a state court judge in Las Vegas is due to consider a bid by Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson to authorize the lethal injection of a mass murderer in late July.

Zane Michael Floyd, 45, would be the first convicted killer put to death in Nevada in 15 years. He is fighting in state and federal courts against his execution for the 1999 shotgun killings of four people and the wounding of a fifth at a Las Vegas supermarket.

Sisolak, a Democrat, was Clark County Commission chairman when 58 people were killed in a shooting on the Las Vegas Strip in October 2017. He said Thursday he believes capital punishment should be used rarely, in what he called “severe situations.” The gunman in the Strip shooting killed himself before police reached him.

Democrats noted the repeal bill advanced further in the current Legislature than any similar measure in decades, and acknowledged a need to reform what Assembly Democratic Speaker Jason Frierson characterized as “inequities that exist in our criminal justice system.”

“We could not get across the finish line this session,” Frierson said.

Scott Coffee, a deputy public defender in Las Vegas who has long fought to end capital punishment in Nevada, said he believed Democratic state leaders’ concerns about getting reelected “got in the way of good policy.”

“We are gravely disappointed in the new position taken by the governor’s office,” Coffee said. “We thought there was a path forward. After 20 years of fighting this in the Legislature, it would seem this year was the time to do it.”

Cannizzaro, a chief deputy prosecutor in Wolfson’s office when the Legislature is not in session, told reporters she was not opposed to amending the bill to limit the application of capital punishment for cases involving mass shootings.
She acknowledged racial inequities in the criminal justice system, but she said they would not be solved “in one legislative session or one bill.”

“It’s not to say that because every measure doesn’t make it over the finish line that we’re not tackling this problem,” Cannizzaro added.

Cannizzaro credited Assemblyman Steve Yeager, the Democratic chairman of the judiciary committee that heard testimony on the bill, with having tried to find a compromise.Yeager said he was not discouraged and promised to focus on making the criminal justice system “fair, equitable, evidence-based, and cost-effective.”

Nevada is one of 27 U.S. states with the death penalty. Prison officials say there are 64 men currently on death row.

Ritter reported from Las Vegas. 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 newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.