Nevada Assembly approves death penalty abolition bill

The Nevada Assembly passed a bill on Tuesday that would abolish the death penalty and retroactively convert all current capital sentences to life without parole. Although several similar bills have been floated before, most recently in 2017, they have never made it out of committee.

Nevada has 70 people on death row but has not executed anyone since 2006 due to drug producers withholding the cocktail for death penalty purposes. A January 2021 poll conducted by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) shows that 49 percent of Nevadans support ending capital punishment, compared to 46 percent that said they would prefer to keep it. That’s up from just 27 percent of residents who were in support of abolition in 2017.

Supporters of the bill argued that the death penalty is racially discriminatory. Around 40 percent of people on death row in Nevada are Black, even though Black people make up just 9 percent of the state’s population. The current statute is broad, listing 14 aggravating circumstances that, if present, would qualify a case for the death penalty. This gives prosecutors a lot of discretion as to when they seek an execution warrant, often leading to disproportionate death sentences for Black people and people of color.

Proponents of abolition also argue that the process is more expensive than a typical first-degree murder case because of necessary background investigations and the automatic appeals process. Opponents suggest these issues could be addressed by streamlining the process to save money–a suggestion that disregards the severity of the penalty in question.

The bill’s future in the Senate remains uncertain. Prosecutor and Democrat Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro said, “Right now we’ve got a lot of Assembly bills coming over. … We’re looking at our schedules, and we’ll go through the legislative process, but obviously haven’t had time to sit down, make any commitments on anything.”

And Democratic Governor Steve Sisolak gave a noncommittal answer when asked whether he would sign off if it passed. He said that he is against the death penalty in most cases but believes there are “incredibly severe situations that may warrant consideration of capital punishment,” citing the 2017 shooting at the Route 91 Harvest music festival, where Stephen Paddock killed 60 people after firing more than 1,000 rounds into the crowd from his 32nd-story hotel room window. Paddock took his own life shortly after and never faced trial or sentencing.