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NV Death Row Case Earns State Rebuke From SCOTUS

Last spring, the U.S. Supreme Court took the unusual approach of dressing down Nevada for a death penalty case decided more than 20 years ago.

Michael Rippo was found guilty in the murder of two women in 1992, and sentenced to death in 1996.

But the nation's high court says Nevada messed up the trial, and Ripp's fate remains in a state of limbo.

Las Vegas defense attorney Dayvid Figler  wrote about the case for the Nevada Independent.

Figler told State of Nevada that the case is an example of how the legal system in Nevada was "really the wild west" at one time.

The main issue the Supreme Court had with the case regarded allegations of bias against the trial judge.

At the time of trial, the judge was being investigated for bribery, and the  Clark County district attorney's office was part of that investigation.

Rippo's attorneys allege the judge favored the district attorney in the trial in order to curry favor in his bribery case. Attorneys asked the judge to recuse himself from the trial, but he refused.

The judge was eventually acquitted of the bribery charges -- but he didn't know that while presiding over Rippo's trial.

Figler says the Supreme Court decision could have a far-reaching impact.

"And now, all these years later, the United States Supreme Court says that the Nevada Supreme Court -- and subsequently all the other courts in Nevada -- have been applying the wrong standard, asking the wrong questions, on whether or not a judge should be removed from a case," he said.

The allegations of wrongdoing in the case go beyond just the judge. Attorneys for Rippo have launched a myriad of complaints against the prosecution, including they withheld information, used bad science, and put poor witnesses on the stand.

Despite all of the allegations and the decision by the Supreme Court, Rippo's case remains in limbo.

Figler explained it is really up to the Nevada Supreme Court to make a decision on the case, but since they don't have deadlines, the case has lingered.

It has been 14 months since the U.S. Supreme Court said Nevada was wrong about its bias standard and mandated changes, but nothing has been fixed.

"Meanwhile, this is a very important standard that doesn't just affect Mr. Rippo's case, although I'm sure Mr. Rippo is very concerned about what the Nevada Supreme Court will do now that the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken, but for any case where there was an allegation -- especially in a criminal case, especially a case of life or death like a death penalty case -- where the judge had a possibility of bias or a probability of bias that met the United States Supreme Court standard and wasn't given the relief," he said.

At this point, Figler said the federal public defender's office could try to "gently petition" the court to move ahead with a decision, but that would be an unusual step.

They could also take the even more unusual step of going to the higher court to ask it to tell the Nevada Supreme Court to do something.

But for now, the case waits in limbo.

Figler believes the case speaks to a more difficult problem in Nevada: choosing unbiased judges.

Nevada elects its judges and most people would find it extremely difficult to suss out a judge's potential biases, either by looking at their campaign donation records or reading past written decisions.

"We elect our judges and most voters really can't discern who should be the judge," he said.  

Dayvid Figler, defense attorney

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Casey Morell is the coordinating producer of Nevada Public Radio's flagship broadcast State of Nevada and one of the station's midday newscast announcers. (He's also been interviewed by Jimmy Fallon, whatever that's worth.)