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Judge: Nevada can’t yet consider death sentence commutations

In this May 8, 2018, file photo, then-Clark County Commission member Steve Sisolak speaks during a forum for Nevada gubernatorial candidates organized by Nevada faith groups in Las Vegas.
In this May 8, 2018, file photo, then-Clark County Commission member Steve Sisolak speaks during a forum for Nevada gubernatorial candidates organized by Nevada faith groups in Las Vegas.

Rio Yamat/Associated Press

Nevada’s pardons board will not be able to consider a last-minute request from outgoing Gov. Steve Sisolak to commute the sentences of all 57 of the state’s death row prisoners, a judge ordered Monday evening.

The state Board of Pardons was set to vote on the request Tuesday morning, potentially delivering the second major victory in a week for advocates who have called for the abolition of capital punishment after Oregon Gov. Kate Brown used her executive clemency powers last Wednesday to commute the state’s 17 death sentences.

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Delivering his ruling from the bench, Carson City District Court Judge James Wilson Jr. said Nevada’s pardons board, which includes the governor, has the authority to grant such commutations but failed to properly notify the families of victims before the meeting.

“I think that is required to show the capital murder victim fairness and respect for his or her dignity,” Wilson said. His order came in response to an emergency petition filed last week by Chris Hicks, the Republican district attorney in Reno, who criticized Sisolak’s request as “unjust and undemocratic.”

News of the judge’s decision brought some comfort to Kenneth Cherry Sr., 63, whose son was killed in 2013 when death row prisoner Ammar Harris opened fire on the Las Vegas Strip, causing a fiery crash that left Kenneth Cherry Jr. and two others, including cab driver Michael Boldon, dead.

“It’s impossible to move on knowing my son’s murderer is still alive,” Cherry Sr. said Monday evening from his home in Oakland. “It’s an unexplainable pain.”

And to rub salt in the wound, he said, he learned of Sisolak’s request from Boldon’s brother, who had read about it in the news.

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“What they’re doing to us is plain wrong,” Cherry Sr. said. “There has not been one day that my family hasn’t suffered since my son was killed.”

The pardons board will still meet Tuesday as scheduled but won’t discuss the commutations.

A spokeswoman for the governor’s office declined to comment Monday evening on the judge’s order but said Sisolak will deliver remarks Tuesday at the meeting.

Sisolak confirmed last week that he wanted to clear the state’s death row before he leaves office in two weeks by reducing the sentences of all inmates awaiting execution to life in prison without parole. He had hoped to garner enough support from pardons board members at their final meeting together before Republican Gov.-elect Joe Lombardo, the sheriff in Las Vegas since 2015, is sworn in and takes his place on the board.

The eleventh-hour request came as shock both to criminal justice reform advocates in Nevada, who said they were suspicious of the governor’s timing, and to proponents of capital punishment, who accused Sisolak of executive overreach.

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Last year, Democrats commanded majorities in both chambers of the statehouse and appeared to support abolishing the death penalty, but legislative efforts ultimately stalled after Sisolak voiced his opposition.

At the time, Democrats were anticipating crime would emerge as among the midterm election’s most potent partisan issues, but Sisolak denied to reporters that his reelection campaign figured into his decision to voice concerns about the bill.

Sisolak, a practicing Catholic whose daughter works as a public defender, said his views on capital punishment irrevocably changed after the mass shooting in Las Vegas in 2017.

Scott Coffee, a longtime public defender in Las Vegas who had supported the bill last year to abolish capital punishment, said Nevada’s death penalty system is beyond repair.

“It’s been a false promise to victims for too long,” he said. “To some extent, it’s lip service to tell them that there will be some kind of retribution for the death of their loved ones when the reality is that it just doesn’t happen.”

Nevada has not executed a prisoner since 2006, and all but one of the 12 people executed since 1977, when the state reinstated capital punishment, had waived their appeals.


Associated Press writer Sam Metz in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.