Originally published in The Nevada Sagebrush on March 14, 2017
Nevada could soon join 19 states and Washington, D.C. in ditching capital punishment. Assembly Bill 237, to be introduced later this legislative session, would abolish the death penalty and commute the sentences of current inmates on death row to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The bill is sponsored by Assemblyman James Ohrenschall, D-Las Vegas, and Sen. Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas.
“I am philosophically against the death penalty,” Segerblom said. “I just don’t believe that society has the right to decide who lives and dies, but the primary reason is that it doesn’t work. No one is ever going to actually be executed in Nevada; in the meantime, we’re wasting millions of dollars trying to enforce capital punishment.”
Nevada has executed just 12 inmates since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1977, and most recently executed Daryl Mack in 2006 for the 1988 rape and murder of Betty Jane May, a Reno native.
Experts say the punishment will grow increasingly rare due to the lack of availability of the combination of drugs used to make the lethal injection. One of the two drugs required has expired, and the state has searched to no avail in recent months for a pharmaceutical company willing to replenish its supply.
“We have no way to kill somebody even if the appeals ran out and the individual is just sitting there on death row, we couldn’t kill them,” Segerblom said. “We’d have to get a new set of drugs or go back to the electric chair, firing squad or hanging, and any change in the process would require a huge amount of testing.”
Dr. Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, explained further that a change to the method of killing inmates or to the lethal injection itself would simply lengthen the time spent in the courts.
“If they make any change then that is grounds for an appeal. So there you’ve just added maybe two years [to the trial],” he said.
The appeals process is a long, last-ditch effort for defendants sentenced to death. For this reason, such defendants are in court almost up until the day they receive the injection. This also comes at a great cost to the public.
Sen. Segerblom postulated the cost of maintaining the death penalty to Nevadans at one to five million dollars annually. Once a defendant is sentenced to death, the prosecution and the defense double their numbers of lawyers. Each side hires psychologists, psychiatrists and any change in court proceedings may garner another appeal.
“The amount of errors that can take place is incredible,” Segerblom said. “When you look at the appeals process and the rights to have a conviction challenged, you realize even the most heinous criminal probably has all kinds of psychological issues, the jury pool is easily tainted, the prosecutor probably overreached and the defense attorney was probably incompetent.”
Herzik said there is a lack of evidence in academic literature that states whether or not capital punishment is affecting the calculus of potential murderers. He also discussed the social vengeance aspect of the death penalty.
“In the Nevada Revised Statutes and in sentencing, you are sentenced to a term of ‘x’ years for punishment,” Herzik said. “There is nothing about rehabilitation, and you can make that argument that ‘I don’t care what it costs. I don’t care that it’s not a deterrent.’ It brings closure to the case.”
There’s also the matter of systemic racism within the justice system. Of Nevada’s 81 inmates on death row, 42 are racial minorities. Thirty-three of those inmates are African Americans. Accounting for just 9.3 percent of the state population, African Americans make up 41 percent of Nevada’s population of inmates on death row.
Even so, Herzik cautions against applying a racial or ethnic lens to the actual use of capital punishment.
“If they say it’s disproportionately applied to minorities, that’s incorrect,” Herzik said, alluding to the fact that no executions in Nevada are presently scheduled. “It’s disproportionately given to minorities, but there’s not a lot of evidence indicating that African Americans are more likely to actually be executed. African Americans are far more likely to get harsher penalties and they’re disproportionately represented in prison populations and you can carry that over to death row, but then be careful about the actual application.”
Ahead of the Nevada Legislature’s 79th Session, lawmakers have maintained that restorative social vengeance is an efficient justification for capital punishment in the state.
“It’s a philosophical question,” Herzik said, “and there is no social science answer to that one.”