Nevada

Nevada

Nevada Pardons Man Imprisoned 21 Years as a Result of Wrongful Capital Murder Prosecution

Nevada has pardoned Fred Steese (pictured), who spent 21 years in prison after Las Vegas prosecutors wrongly sought the death penalty against him while witholding evidence that he was not even in the state at the time the murder occurred. In what news reports described as "a clear rebuke to the Las Vegas prosecutors," the Nevada Board of Pardons Commissioners voted 8-1 on November 8 to grant Steese a full pardon. “I’m a new man now,” Steese said. “It’s lifted a black cloud over me.” The seven justices of the Nevada Supreme Court and Governor Brian Sandoval voted in favor of clearing Steese's name; only Adam Laxalt, the state's attorney general and a current candidate for governor, voted against the pardon. Steese was charged with capital murder in the high-profile 1992 killing of Las Vegas circus performer, Gerard Soules. He was prosecuted by Bill Kephart and Doug Herndon, who both went on to become district judges in Las Vegas. Steese was in Idaho at the time of Soules's death, but signed a false confession after a five-hour interrogation and 35 hours without sleep. At trial he presented numerous alibi witness who testified that he was in Idaho at the time. Kephart—who also committed misconduct in several other capital trials before being elected as a judge in 2014—argued to the jury (with no supporting evidence) that the witnesses had seen Steese's brother in Idaho and that Steese had manufactured the alibi. After Steese was convicted in 1995, prosecutors withdrew the death penalty and Sreese was sentenced to two life sentences. He spent two decades in prison before federal public defenders proved that his brother, estranged since childhood, couldn’t have helped with Steese’s alibi. The federal defenders' investigation also unearthed phone records in the prosecution’s files that proved Steese was in Idaho at the time of the murder. In 2012, a Nevada Eighth Judicial District Court judge issued an Order of Actual Innocence, declaring that Steese didn’t kill anyone. But the Clark County District Attorney’s Office refused to admit it had convicted an innocent man. In 2013, Assistant District Attorney Pamela Weckerly told Steese she’d agree to release him from prison only if he entered an Alford plea, in which, while maintaining his innocence, he admitted there was sufficient evidence on which he could be convicted. After gaining his freedom, Steese—still with a murer conviction on his record— struggled to find employment and experienced periods of homelessness before finding work as a cross-country trucker. At the pardon hearing, Steese’s pro-bono attorney lawyer, Lisa Rasmussen, said that from the time of his interrogation through the time of his release from prison, his constitutional rights had been “violated in a huge way.” Rasmussen condemned the prosecutorial misconduct in the case as “an embarrassment and a black mark on Clark County and the state of Nevada." After Steese himself testified, the board heard from Kathy Nasrey, the sister of Gerard Soules, who demanded that Kephart, Herndon, and others be held accountable for knowingly convicting an innocent man while her brother’s killer remained on the loose. “Now that it was clear that certain lawyers and detectives helped convict an innocent man,” she said, “will they be held accountable for taking away 20 years of his life?”

Nebraska Proposes Untried Lethal-Injection Combination as Nevada Court Halts Execution With Similar Drugs

As Nebraska announced its intention to use a never-before-tried four-drug execution combination featuring the opiod pain medication fentanyl and the paralytic drug cisatracurium, a Nevada judge issued a stay of execution that put off the nation's first attempted execution using those drugs. On November 9, the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services provided notice to death-row prisoner Jose Sandoval that it intends to execute him using a combination of the drugs diazepam (Valium), fentanyl citrate, cisatracurium besylate, and potassium chloride. Later that day, Clark County (Las Vegas) District Judge Jennifer Togliatti granted a request by lawyers for the Nevada Department of Corrections to stay the scheduled November 14 execution of Scott Dozier to permit them to appeal her order directing the state to remove cisatracurium from its also untried execution protocol of diazepam, fentanyl, and the paralytic. Dozier, who has waived his appeals and asked to be executed, is only contesting the state's method of execution. The judge issued her order after considering medical evidence that the cisatracurium could cause Dozier to experience "air hunger" and suffocate to death, while masking signs that he was conscious and suffering during the execution. Doctors testified that a paralytic drug would be unnecessary if the other two drugs, fentanyl and diazepam, were administered properly. In staying the execution to permit Nevada to appeal to the state supreme court, Judge Togliatti said: "They're going to have to be the court to make that determination that we as a state are OK with a paralytic." Nebraska law requires the state to give a prison notice of the drugs to be used in the execution at least sixty days in advance of issuing a death warrant. The state attorney general's office has indicated it will ask the Nebraska Supreme Court to issue a warrant after that time has passed. State Senator Ernie Chambers, one of the leaders of the Nebraska legislature's repeal of the state's death-penalty statute and its override of Governor Pete Ricketts's veto of the measure, criticized the notice as politically motivated and called the timing of its issuance "suspicious." The notice was issued almost a year to the day after the voters brought back the death-penalty law in a voter iniative bankrolled by Rickett, and as the governor gears up for a re-election campaign in 2018. Sandoval is currently unrepresented. The Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy, which typically represents death-row prisoners, cannot represent Sandoval because it represented other defendants in the case. But the commission's executive director, Jeffery Pickens, said Sandoval "has to be given some sort of opportunity to challenge [the drug protocol]."

Arkansas, Nevada Obtain New Supplies of Drugs, Plan to Carry Out Two Questionable Executions

The states of Arkansas and Nevada have announced that they have obtained new supplies of execution drugs that will permit them to carry out two executions in what critics have called questionable circumstances. On August 4, Arkansas obtained a supply of midazolam—the controversial drug used in botched executions in at least four states—paying $250 in cash to an undisclosed supplier for 40 vials of the drug. Then, on August 17, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge asked Governor Asa Hutchinson to set an execution date for Jack Greene (pictured), described by his lawyers as “a severely mentally ill man [with] well-documented brain damage.” Also on August 17, Nevada—which does not currently have an execution protocol in place—announced that it had obtained drugs to execute Scott Dozier, using a three-drug formula that no state has ever tried before. Dozier—who has waived his appeal rights and volunteered to be executed—is scheduled to die on November 14. In a press statement, Greene’s lawyer, John C. Williams, said “[c]apital punishment should not be used on vulnerable people like the severely mentally ill.” Greene, he said, is mentally incompetent and suffers from delusions that “his spinal cord has been removed and his central nervous system has been destroyed.” Responding to this delusion, Williams said, Greene “constantly twist[s] his body and stuff[s] his ear and nose with toilet paper to cope with the pain,” often causing himself to bleed. A spokesperson for Hutchinson—who authorized Arkansas’s unprecedented attempt to execute eight prisoners over an eleven-day span in April—has indicated that the governor will set an execution date for Greene. To execute Dozier, Nevada has indicated that it will use an untried combination of diazepam (Valium), fentanyl (an opiod), and cisatracurium (a paralytic). The state has not yet announced how the drugs will be administered. All but one of the prisoners executed in Nevada since 1977 were found to have waived their appeals; Dozier would be the state's 12th death-row prisoner to volunteer to be executed. Nevada recently spent nearly $900,000 on building a new execution chamber.  

Nevada Death-Row Prisoner Released on Plea Deal After Medical Evidence Suggests No Crime Occurred

Ha'im Al Matin Sharif (pictured), formerly known as Charles Robins, has been released from Nevada's death row, nearly 30 years after he was convicted of killing his girlfriend's 11-month-old daughter, after medical evidence revealed that the baby died from infantile scurvy, rather than from physical abuse. Prosecutors agreed to amend the charges against Sharif and release him on time served after a prosecution doctor confirmed that Brittany Smith actually died of Barlow's disease, a form of scurvy affecting infants. The child's autopsy showed broken bones and hemorrhages, a local medical examiner listed the cause of death as blunt force trauma, and Las Vegas police accused Sharif of torturing her. “I was confused as to the nature of the injuries they described, because I had done nothing,” Sharif said. The child's mother initially told police that Sharif was not abusive, but then testified against him. She later recanted her testimony and told Sharif's appellate attorney that police had coerced her into providing false testimony implicating Sharif by threatening to take her other children away. During Sharif's appeals, medical experts who reviewed the baby's X-rays to rule out disease as the cause of death said the injuries were likely caused by scurvy. The Nevada Supreme Court ordered that the case be sent back to the trial court, writing, "We are satisfied that Robins has presented specific factual allegations that, if true, would show that it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have convicted him of first-degree murder and child abuse beyond a reasonable doubt or found the single aggravating circumstance used to make him death eligible." Prosecutors agreed to a deal in which Sharif would plead guilty to second-degree murder and be sentenced to time served. Although Sharif continues to maintain his innocence, he agreed to the reduction in charges to obtain his immediate release. Sharif's case is the latest in a growing number of cases in which men and women have been wrongly sentenced to death based upon erroneous forensic testimony that they had murdered a child, when the children had actually died from natural or accidental causes. Rodricus Crawford was exonerated in Louisiana in 2017 on evidence that his one-year-old son died of pneumonia and sepsis, not suffocation. Sabrina Butler was just 17 years old when her infant son died. She spent five years on death row in Mississippi before she was acquitted at a retrial, where she presented evidence that her child died of a hereditary kidney condition. Others have been condemned for the deaths of their children in cases that junk-science testimony misattributed to arson:  Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004 based on faulty fire testimony; in 2006, after more than 15 years on Pennsylvania's death row, Dennis Counterman agreed to enter a no-contest plea to third-degree murder and was released. 

Las Vegas Prosecutor Who Obtained Wrongful Capital Conviction Engaged in Pattern of Misconduct

A Las Vegas, Nevada, judge—who, as a prosecutor, committed misconduct in several death-penalty trials—now faces judicial misconduct charges arising out of another murder case in which a defendant he prosecuted has been granted a hearing to prove her innocence. The Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline has charged Bill Kephart (pictured) with several violations of the judicial code of conduct for giving a media interview about his controversial 2002 prosecution of Kirstin Lobato that the Commission alleges "could affect the outcome or impair the fairness of Miss Lobato's case." Kephart denies the charges. Kephart previously withheld exculpatory evidence from defendant Fred Steese in a 1994 capital trial and went on to commit misconduct in at least five other cases before being elected to serve as a judge on the Eighth Judicial District Court of Nevada in 2014.  A pair of articles co-published by ProPublica and Vanity Fair details the story of Steese's wrongful prosecution and what it calls Kephart's "long history of prosecutorial misconduct." In 1994, Kephart led the high-profile prosecution of Steese for the murder of a highly celebrated circus performer, Gerald Soules. After a five-hour interrogation by Las Vegas police and more than 35 hours without sleep, Steese signed a confession to Soules' murder, despite having been in Idaho when the murder occurred. Steese presented 14 alibi witnesses, but Kephart argued to the jury—with no supporting evidence—that Steese's brother had posed as him in Idaho while Steese committed the murder in Nevada. Kephart also presented misleading identification testimony and baselessly accused the defense of doctoring evidence. After Steese was convicted, prosecutors dropped the death penalty and Steese was sentenced to life. Steese's lawyer subsequently learned that prosecutors had unconstitutionally withheld phone records showing Steese was in fact in Idaho at the time of the murder. Nearly 20 years later, a judge handed down an Order Regarding Actual Innocence in Steese's case, and Steese was released in 2013. By then, Kephart had been cited for misconduct in five other cases, including a 1997 capital murder trial in which he made "deliberate" and "improper comments" and a 2008 death penalty trial in which the misconduct was characterized as "significant."  Despite the reprimands, he was elected as a justice of the peace in 2010 and became a District Court judge in 2014.

Nevada's Search for Execution Drug Suppliers Turns Up Zero Bids

After having "solicited thoroughly for vendors," the Nevada Department of Corrections announced that no pharmaceutical company has offered to sell the state drugs for use in executions. James Dzurenda, director of the Nevada Department of Corrections issued a statement on October 7 saying that the Department had sent 247 requests for proposals to pharmaceutical suppliers on September 2 and, in response, had received no bids to supply the state with lethal injection drugs. In August, Dzurenda informed the state Board of Prison Commissioners that one of the two drugs the state used in executions—midazolam and hydromorphone—had expired and that Pfizer, Inc., which produces both of the drugs, refused to provide the state with new supplies. Pfizer announced restrictions on the distribution of its medicines in May in an effort to prevent states from using them in executions. At the time, the company said, "Pfizer makes its products to enhance and save the lives of the patients we serve. Consistent with these values, Pfizer strongly objects to the use of its products as lethal injections for capital punishment." Having failed to identify a drug supplier, Dzurenda said the Department "will work closely with the attorney general, the governor and the Legislature to examine our options and decide the best course of action moving forward." The state legislature would have to approve any change to an alternative method of execution. The state's $858,000 new execution chamber is expected to be completed by November 1, but no executions are imminent, and none could be carried out without a supply of drugs. Nevada's last execution was in April 2006. Officials said the space will be used for storage and attorney-client meetings if no executions are scheduled.

OUTLIER COUNTIES: Official Misconduct, Race Bias Permeate Death Penalty in Clark County, Nevada

The geographic arbitrariness, high rates of official misconduct, racial discrimination, and poor defense representation characteristic of outlier jurisdictions that disproportionately seek and impose the death penalty in the United States are all present in Clark County, Nevada's administration of the death penalty. From 2010 through 2015, nine death sentences were imposed in Clark County, while no one was sentenced to death in any other county in Nevada during that same period. In an analysis by Harvard University's Fair Punishment Project of the 16 counties that imposed the most death sentences in the United States over that period, Clark exhibited the highest levels of prosecutorial misconduct, with the Nevada Supreme Court finding misconduct in 47% of the Clark County death penalty cases it reviewed on direct appeal since 2006. Part of this, according to the Fair Punishment Project, is attributable to the "sloppiness that comes along with overextended lawyers," but that overextension was itself a by-product of prosecutorial decisionmaking. In 2011, Clark County had more pending capital cases per capita than any other county in the nation. David Roger, who was District Attorney until 2012 when he resigned to become counsel for the Las Vegas police union, refused to offer or accept plea deals in death penalty cases. At that time, Clark County exhibited another charactistic present in many counties that overaggressively pursue capital punishment: police violence against civilians. The county was the subject of numerous citizen complaints describing police brutality, deadly force, and excessive use of force disproportionately directed at racial minorities, and the ACLU and NAACP had petitioned the Justice Department to investigate what it called a pattern of civil rights abuses by law enforcement. In 2015, Clark ranked fourth in the nation in the per capita rate of police killings of civilians. Racial bias also plagues Clark County death penalty cases: the Nevada Supreme Court overturned two convictions in less than two years because of race discrimination in jury selection by Clark County prosecutors. In the period covered by the Fair Punishment Project report, 71% of victims in cases that resulted in a death sentence were white, though only 33% of murder victims in Las Vegas, which composes most of Clark County, were white. The exoneration of Roberto Miranda highlights another systemic problem in Clark County death penalty cases: inadequate representation. Roberto Miranda spent 14 years on death row before being exonerated, and later sued the county for poor public defense practices, including assigning inexperienced attorneys to capital defendants. In a court filing, the county responded, "As a matter of law, attorneys who have graduated from law school and passed the bar should be considered adequately trained to handle capital murder cases." Over the period of the Fair Punishment Project study, the case for life presented by defense lawyers in the cases that resulted in death verdicts lasted an average of only 1.1 days. Clark County's death penalty practices have also been extremely costly. A University of Nevada-Las Vegas study estimated in 2012 that the 80 capital cases prosecuted in the county would cost $15 million more than if they were to be prosecuted without the death penalty.

VICTIMS: Death Penalty Dropped at Request of Victim's Mother

Cynthia Portaro, whose son, Michael (pictured), was killed in 2011, stood before a Nevada courtroom on February 23 and asked prosecutors to stop seeking the death penalty for the man convicted of her son's murder. Prosecutors agreed to the request and said they would ask the judge to sentence Brandon Hill to life without parole. Portaro said, “I personally didn’t want to see another person die. I got what I wanted — an apology from Brandon. I felt a sense of relief that there is no hatred, animosity, anger.” Joseph Abood, Hill's defense attorney, said, “I’ve never seen anything like it. ... I’m just happy that the healing for everybody can start today. … He’s matured a lot since this killing, and I’m glad he’s finally able to recognize that he made a grave error and to know that he needs to apologize.” In the years since her son's death, Portaro has started a support group to help others through the loss of loved ones. “I just help other families through trauma, give them hope, give them tools, guidance, comfort, love, support, knowing that if they can see me being able to do it, they can do it, too,” Portaro said. “It helps me to help others."

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