By Ken Ritter
LAS VEGAS — Two Democratic state lawmakers proposing an end to capital punishment are pointing to costly appeals and court-ordered postponements of a lethal injection case that ended last month when the inmate killed himself.
“It’s a burden to taxpayers,” said state Sen. James Ohrenschall, who is sponsoring the bill with Assemblyman Ozzie Fumo. The two lawmakers separately backed similar measures that failed in 2017.
“Folks committing heat-of-passion crimes or calculated crimes don’t look at a state sentencing structure,” Ohrenschall said. “Bottom line, I don’t believe it has proved to be a deterrent.”
The law would add Nevada to the list of 20 states and the District of Columbia that ban capital punishment.
“In effect, we don’t have the death penalty in Nevada,” Fumo said. “This just codifies it.”
The state hasn’t carried out an execution since 2006, and the two lawmakers pointed to court challenges that twice stopped scheduled executions of Scott Raymond Dozier.
“We’ve seen the drug companies go to court to block their products from being used, and win,” Ohrenschall said.
Fumo is a Las Vegas defense attorney who has represented death row inmates. He estimated the average cost of mandatory appeals for death row inmates at $500,000, and said the state spends a billion “warehousing” people in jails and prisons before, during and after death penalty trials.
“If we can reduce the cost, that money can go to teacher salaries,” he said.
The lawmakers said they hope new Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, who said during last year’s campaign that he supports the death penalty “in extreme cases,” might reconsider.
“I think Gov. Sisolak realizes we have problems with capital punishment in Nevada with the economics, the cost and the lack of deterrent to crime,” Ohrenschall said.
Sisolak’s spokeswoman, Helen Kalla, said late Tuesday the governor is aware of the bill and will follow the debate in the Legislature. Kalla did not say if Sisolak would sign the measure if it passes.
Nevada has 77 inmates on death row awaiting appeals, according to the state Department of Corrections. No executions are currently scheduled.
Dozier, a twice-convicted killer, gave up his appeals in 2016 and volunteered to die, but a series of court fights postponed his execution. He was found dead last month at Ely State Prison. His death was ruled a suicide.
His death ended several lawsuits without a court ruling on whether Nevada’s plan to use a never-tried combination of drugs — including high doses of the powerful opioid fentanyl and a muscle paralyzing agent — would cause an unconstitutionally cruel and inhumane death.
The state Supreme Court has given a pharmaceutical company a March 1 deadline to say why its challenge of the use of its product in a Nevada execution still matters.
Both Ohrenschall and Fumo noted that inmates sentenced to life without parole are not later eligible for reduced sentences.
“In Nevada, that means you leave prison in a pine box,” said Fumo. “To my clients, the worst punishment would be life without the possibility of parole.”