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Strong emotions surface around effort to commute all death sentences in Nevada

People stand in line with their backs to the camera in a brown and beige colored courtroom in front of a bench of five state supreme court justices.
Lucia Starbuck
KUNR Public Radio
People stand in line to provide public comment about the removed agenda item to commute all death sentences to life without parole at the Supreme Court of Nevada in Carson City on Dec. 20, 2022.

The Nevada Board of Pardons didn’t take any actions on Tuesday to reduce all death sentences in the state to life without parole after a district court judge struck it down; however, that didn’t stop public comment at the Supreme Court in Carson City, in Las Vegas and online.

Mixed feelings for and against the death penalty

Several family members of victims who lost their lives to people currently on death row gave emotional testimonies about how the death penalty will give them a small piece of closure.

Trina Ramirez-Diaz lost her brother Ellizear Graham in 2013, who was shot while working at a gas station in Mustang, Nev. She drove from Sacramento, Calif., to provide public comment, but she didn’t know the item was pulled from the board’s agenda. She says her brother’s death has caused her anxiety and made it difficult to keep a job.

“I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t see straight. I was angry. I was always watching the news, seeing when he would go to jail,” Ramirez-Diaz said. “What really made the change was my granddaughter. She’s like, ‘When is my grandma coming back?’ ”

That person was convicted of murdering her brother, along with four other people. Ramirez-Diaz doesn’t know if his death will give her closure because it won’t bring her brother back.

There are roughly 60 people on death row in Nevada, and the last execution took place in 2006.

Lilith Baran is the policy manager for the ACLU of Nevada, and she says the death penalty disproportionately impacts people of color, people with mental illness, and many people on death row are represented by public defenders.

“We hope that the future allows this body to advance society forward by approving commutation and sparing the lives of dozens of people who face execution by our state,” Baran said.

A spokesperson with the ACLU of Nevada said the organization isn’t aware of any bills that would revisit this discussion ahead of the Nevada Legislative Session starting in February.

Sisolak defends the decision, other Democrats disagree

Outgoing Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak addressed why he tried to commute all death sentences in the state to life without parole during the board meeting, which is made up of state supreme court justices, the attorney general and the governor.

“I could not allow myself to leave this position without starting the necessary conversations,” Sisolak said. “Placing this matter on the agenda was done as an act of grace and with the understanding that the death penalty is fundamentally broken.”

In 2021, advocates were disappointed when Sisolak and state Democratic leadership said there was no path forward for a state assembly-passed bill to end the death penalty.

Not all Democrats agree with the effort to reduce all death sentences. In a written statement to KUNR, Senators Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen said the death penalty should be on the table for the most heinous crimes.

Lucia Starbuck is an award-winning journalist covering politics, focusing on democracy and solutions for KUNR Public Radio. Her goal is to provide helpful and informative coverage for everyday Nevadans.
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