Outgoing governor: Nevada has to solve death penalty issue

Dec 19, 2022, 11:49 PM | Updated: Dec 20, 2022, 4:40 pm
Gov. Steve Sisolak speaks during a pardons board meeting at the Nevada Supreme Court in Las Vegas, ...

Gov. Steve Sisolak speaks during a pardons board meeting at the Nevada Supreme Court in Las Vegas, Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022. Sisolak said Tuesday that he hoped his failed proposal to clear the state's death row starts a “necessary conversation” about capital punishment as state lawmakers head into their next legislative session in February. (Erik Verduzco/Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP)

(Erik Verduzco/Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP)

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Outgoing Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak said Tuesday he hoped his failed proposal to clear the state’s death row starts a “necessary conversation” about capital punishment when state lawmakers begin their legislative session in February.

“The death penalty is fundamentally broken,” Sisolak said during a state Board of Pardons meeting linked by video between Las Vegas and Carson City.

Sisolak, a Democrat, said last week he wanted the board to consider commuting death sentences to life in prison without parole for the 57 inmates awaiting execution in Nevada.

On Tuesday, he called placing the issue on the agenda “an act of grace.”

“We do not have the wherewithal to carry out the death sentence,” Sisolak said, referring to court battles and an inability of state prison officials to obtain lethal drugs for executions. “So my hope is that bringing it up will encourage the Legislature to have the discussion … and handle the difficult decision that has to be addressed.”

But on Monday evening, a state judge in Carson City blocked action by the pardons board, ruling that it failed to provide 15-day notice of the meeting to the families of victims, as required by state law.

Judge James Wilson Jr. in Carson City acknowledged the board has authority to grant commutations with proper notice. However, Sisolak leaves office in less than two weeks and won’t have time to call a special meeting for his request.

In Nevada, the governor does not have sole authority to grant clemency. Pardons and commutations must be approved by a majority of the nine-member pardons board: The governor, state attorney general and seven state Supreme Court justices.

“It is my hope going forward that the discussion can continue to finally bring about a resolution to this issue,” Sisolak said before inviting an overflow audience of more than 70 people in Las Vegas and dozens more in Carson City to share their thoughts on capital punishment at the end of the meeting.

When that time came, James Allen Jr., now 63 and living in North Las Vegas, spoke of himself as a grateful recipient of a second chance. He served more than three years on Nevada’s death row for shooting 22-year-old Tony Sylvester dead during a burglary in 1980.

“I took an innocent life,” said Allen, whose death sentence as a teenager was overturned on appeal. He was granted parole after 28 years behind bars and has written and speaks publicly about his experience.

“You’re talking about abolishing the death penalty? Thank you,” Allen told the board. “Because I am a proven fact that you can do wrong, you can make a mistake, you can take a life, but someone else will believe in you.”

David Mowen stood solemnly with his stepdaughter, Jennifer Moore, and invoked the memory of his son, Matthew Mowen, who was shot execution-style in the back of the head at age 19 during a 1998 home robbery-turned-quadruple killing in Las Vegas. His killer, Donte Johnson, now 43, was convicted in 2000 and sentenced in 2005 to die.

“The death penalty is a very, very, very serious issue before this country as well as this state,” Mowen said. “I’ve heard many times that the death penalty does not work. I have to agree. It does not work because it is not used.”

Stephanie Catmull traveled to Las Vegas from Colorado Springs, Colorado, after hearing on Friday that commutations were to be considered.

“I feel for the victims here,” she said.

Catmull pleaded with board members not to forget the torture and death of 3-year-old Mailin Stafford in June 1994 in Reno by her stepfather, Carlos Gutierrez.

“This was 28 years ago and I am still standing here today for Mailin,” she said, noting that she had provided physical care for the girl before her death.

Nevada has not carried out an execution since 2006, and all but one of the 12 people executed in the state since Nevada reinstated capital punishment in 1977 waived their appeals.

Wrapping up about two hours of public comments, Sisolak acknowledged “the heinous nature of the crimes” committed by prisoners on Nevada’s death row, but said attempts in recent years to carry out executions have stalled.

Last year, Sisolak opposed legislative efforts to abolish the death penalty, which ultimately failed despite Democrats commanding majorities in both chambers of the statehouse.

Republican Joe Lombardo, the sheriff in Las Vegas since 2015, defeated Sisolak in the November election. Lombardo, who was endorsed by former President Donald Trump, will take Sisolak’s place on the pardons board after he is sworn in.

Lombardo celebrated the Wilson’s court ruling in a statement late Monday.

“I’m grateful that he protected the voter-approved constitutional rights of crime victims and their families,” Lombardo said.

A measure passed in 2018 by Nevadans known as Marsy’s Law expanded rights for victims, including the right to notification of all public hearings and the right to privacy.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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Outgoing governor: Nevada has to solve death penalty issue