Nevada

Nevada

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."

COSTS: Capital Cases in Nevada Much More Expensive Than Non-Death Penalty

A recent study commissioned by the Nevada legislature found that the average death penalty case costs a half million dollars more than a case in which the death penalty is not sought. The Legislative Auditor estimated the cost of a murder trial in which the death penalty was sought cost $1.03 to $1.3 million, whereas cases without the death penalty cost $775,000. The auditor summarized the study's findings, saying, "Adjudicating death penalty cases takes more time and resources compared to murder cases where the death penalty sentence is not pursued as an option. These cases are more costly because there are procedural safeguards in place to ensure the sentence is just and free from error." The study noted that the extra costs of a death penalty trial were still incurred even in cases where a jury chose a lesser sentence, with those cases costing $1.2 million. See Chart below.

COSTS: Death Penalty Cases in Nevada Cost $200K Extra, Just for Defense

A recent study of the death penalty in Nevada compared the costs of defending capital and non-capital murder cases. The study, conducted by Dr. Terance Miethe of the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, looked at the time spent by defense attorneys at various stages of a case. The study’s findings included:
- Clark County public defense attorneys spent an average of 2,298 hours on a capital murder case compared to an average of 1,087 hours on a non-capital murder case--a difference of 1,211 hours, or 112%.
- Defending the average capital murder case in Clark County cost $229,800 for a Public Defender or $287,250 for appointed counsel. The additional cost of capital murder cases was $170,000 to $212,000 per case compared to the cost of a non-capital murder case in the same county.
- The 80 pending capital murder cases in Clark County will cost approximately $15 million more than if they were prosecuted without seeking the death penalty. More results below.

DPIC RESOURCES: New State Pages Now Available

DPIC is pleased to announce the completion of our State Information Pages for all 50 states and the District of Columbia.  These state profiles provide historical and current information on the death penalty for each state, including famous cases, past legislative actions, and links to key organizations and state officials.  For frequently updated information, such as execution totals, the size of death row, or the number of exonerations, see our State-by-State Database.  Readers are encouraged to send additional information, pictures, and links to organizations in their state.  You can reach the State Information Pages through the "State by State" button at the top of every page on our website or under the "Resources" tab in our main menu.

COSTS: Nevada Senate Approves Bill to Study Death Penalty Costs

On May 28, the Nevada Senate passed a bill authorizing an audit of the cost of the state's death penalty.  By a vote of 11-10, the Senate called for the legislative auditor to compare the costs of prosecution and appeals in capital cases to non-death penalty cases, examining the cost of defense lawyers, juries, psychiatric evaluations, appellate and post-conviction proceedings. The auditor would also examine the cost of an execution, including the costs of facilities and staff. The report would be due Jan. 31, 2013. Nevada has not had an execution since April 2006, and has 77 inmates on death row. The bill originally called for a moratorium on executions, but prison officials said they did not presently have the drugs to carry out an execution anyhow.  The bill now goes back to the Assembly.

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