Opponents of capital punishment began the Nevada legislative session bolstered by the governor’s general disapproval of the death penalty.
But two bills that would have banned the punishment didn’t receive hearings and failed last week due to a legislative deadline.
Political observers say Democratic leadership wanted to avoid a divisive debate this session over the death penalty — an issue they say moderate Democrats have a hard time fully embracing in a state with a history of law-and-order politics.
“There’s this symbolic belief that the death penalty gives us justice,” said Eric Herzik, a political science professor the University of Nevada, Reno.
Fred Lokken, a political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College, said Democratic leadership is trying to steer away from certain issues that could serve as a rallying cry for Republicans in the 2020 election.
Democrats don’t want to move too far to the left and risk losing control of the state’s biennial Legislature, he said.
“The death penalty is probably a far better topic for 2021,” Lokken said.
The state has not carried out an execution since 2006 and some supporters have acknowledged a lack of urgency to deal with the issue.
Scott Coffee, a veteran deputy public defender in Clark County, said it has the highest rate of pending capital punishment cases of any metropolitan area in the nation. He argued that the two stalled bills were the best chances in decades to end the punishment in Nevada.
It “wasn’t a priority for the Democratic leadership,” he said.
Supporters of a ban argue that capital punishment cases are costly due to procedural safeguards that seek error-free sentences. A state audit found such cases cost about $532,000 more than other murder cases.
State Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro pointed to other criminal justice reforms efforts when asked if a death penalty debate was too great of a political battle for the Democrats to take on.
“I think we’re really trying to focus on some of the criminal justice reform ideas that I think really can help improve the system for very real problems that are happening right now,” she said.
Democratic Assemblyman Steve Yeager, who leads that chamber’s judiciary committee, said the panel did not have enough time to conduct a lengthy hearing on the death penalty. He said the situation could have been different if the Senate had passed a measure.
Helen Kalla, a spokeswoman for Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, said the governor is personally opposed to the death penalty except in extreme circumstances. But Nevada law does not give the governor unilateral authority to commute a death sentence, she said.
Democratic Assemblyman Ozzie Fumo, a Las Vegas defense attorney who has represented death row inmates, sponsored that chamber’s bill banning the death penalty. He said he is baffled that lawmakers did not consider the legislation.
“We spend millions of dollars defending these people and the state pays for it,” he said.