The Nevada Assembly, which is controlled by Democrats, passed a ban on the death penalty early this month.
Sponsor of the bill, Assemblyman Steve Yeager, told KNPR's State of Nevada that his eight years in the public defenders' office gave him insight into why capital punishment needs to be eliminated.
“What I saw at the public defenders’ office was a broken system,” he said.
He said trying death penalty cases takes up a lot of time and money. He said just seeking the death penalty costs a lot more than seeking life in prison without the possibility of parole.
In addition, he said because the aggravators that can be considered when deciding whether to seek the death penalty are so broad that just about every murder case can qualify.
“When you look at the way our laws are written and the number of aggravators and the number of circumstances in which you can seek the death penalty, I think it is pretty easy to agree that the language is way too broad and it captures way more than the worst of the worst,” he said.
Plus, no one is being executed because of a lack of drugs. Drugmakers are not selling the drugs used to execute to states, and courts have ruled in their favor.
“I think what happened the last couple of years where the state was going to try an execution and couldn’t do it," Yeager said, "I think that really shed light on how broken it is.”
Gov. Steve Sisolak recently said he is opposed to the death penalty, except in "extreme cases."
Yeager said he would like to see the death penalty abolished completely in the state, but he is willing to hear amendments to his bill.
Supporters of the death penalty often say that it is really the only way justice can be served in some murder cases. Yeager said his heart goes out to the families of murder victims, and he believes their perspective is valid.
However, not every family agrees that the death penalty is the best way to serve justice. Instead, Yeager said lawmakers need to focus on policy, not emotion.
“The role for the Legislature is to try to divorce ourselves a little bit from that emotion and think about policy-wise is this the best course for the state of Nevada?” he said.
Yeager said if you look at the issue of the death penalty rationally there are very few arguments for it and none of them stand up to scrutiny.
"Whether it's moral arguments, whether it's effectiveness, whether it's deterrence, whether it's cost - it fails on all those grounds," he said.
Assemblyman P.K. O'Neill disagreed. He believes there is an argument for keeping the death penalty.
“For the protection of our community, I feel that it is an appropriate action,” he said.
O'Neill is a former police officer, who worked in violent crime.
“I have seen the victims. I’ve had to be involved with the victims. I’ve interviewed the offenders and been face to face with some of these,” he said.
He said the death penalty is not being used for people who have murdered one person, but for people that he says take pleasure in taking a life.
Plus, O'Neill says people sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole can petition to get their sentences changed.
“Saying that they’re going to be in there for life, I have seen the system time and time again reduce penalties because they had done something and I just get back to ‘for the protection of the community.’ Appropriately utilized, it is a necessary part of protection,” he said.
He argues that those trying to abolish the death penalty because they say the system is broken instead need to fix the system.
“Look at how we can ensure that it is appropriately utilized, across the board,” O'Neill said.
As far as the problem with getting the drugs used to execute someone, O'Neill believes Nevada should look to other states.
“Other states have been able to develop workarounds including the federal government on the drugs. I think that is more political pressure being put on various drug companies not to allow the sale of drugs than on legitimate issues,” he said.
Twenty-three states have eliminated the death penalty, including Virginia, Colorado and New Hampshire.
Assemblyman Steve Yeager, D-Las Vegas; Assemblyman P.K. O'Neill, R-Carson City
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