A bill to abolish Nevada’s death penalty died without a vote in the state senate after Governor Steve Sisolak (pictured) declared on May 13, 2021 that “there is no path forward” to ban the practice. Shortly thereafter, Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, one of two Las Vegas prosecutors to hold leadership positions in the legislature, said that legislators had failed to reach a consensus on possible amendments to the bill, ending efforts to move any reforms forward before the legislative deadline for bills to advance out of committee.

The death-penalty repeal bill, which would have abolished capital punishment and converted the sentences of the 70 prisoners on Nevada’s death row to life without parole, passed the Democratic-controlled Assembly on April 13, 2021 on a 26-16 party-line vote. Although the proponents of death-penalty repeal believed they had sufficient votes for passage in the Democratic-controlled Senate, they could not get a hearing or a vote on the bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee. That committee is chaired by Senator Melanie Scheible, the other Las Vegas prosecutor.

Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson, who runs the office in which the two senators work when the legislature is not in session, was the lead witness against the bill in the Assembly. In an action whose timing Wolfson said was coincidental, Clark County prosecutors filed pleadings shortly after the Assembly’s vote attempting to set an execution date for Nevada death-row prisoner Zane Floyd. It would be the state’s first execution in 15 years.

ACLU of Nevada executive director Athar Haseebullah blasted Gov. Sisolak and Senate Democratic leaders after the bill’s failure. “The governor’s statement that ‘there is no path forward’ is a major flip-flop on an issue that is literally a matter of life and death,” Haseebullah said. “Party leaders in the Senate and Governor’s office have shown that their commitment to meaningful reform is nothing but lip service. The people of Nevada are ready to end the death penalty. They deserve to have a voice, and they deserve true leadership in the Legislature rather than just political cronyism. This is an embarrassment.”

Governor Sisolak has previously expressed support for limiting the use of the death penalty but has stopped short of advocating for full abolition. In his statement, he said, “I’ve been clear on my position that capital punishment should be sought and used less often, but I believe there are severe situations that warrant it.”

Legislative supporters of abolition expressed disappointment after the announcements from the governor and Senate leaders but placed the defeat in context. Before 2021, no bill to repeal Nevada’s death penalty had ever gotten out of committee in either house of the legislature. “While we are disappointed that we could not get across the finish line this session on AB395,” Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson said, “we have to accept that there is a process and many of our priorities don’t ultimately come to fruition. We will continue working on policies we believe are sound and continue working with our colleagues on meaningful reform to the inequities that exist in our criminal justice system.”

The Nevada Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NVCADP), which had organized support for the bill from groups including the ACLU of Nevada, the Nevada Democratic Party, the Nevada Catholic Conference, Faith Organizing Alliance, Faith in Action and the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, criticized the decision to kill the bill as “undemocratic.” In a statement, the organization decried the inequities of the death penalty system.

“Sen. Cannizzaro and Governor Sisolak have demonstrated a lack of concern about the unfair and racially biased application of the death penalty in Nevada,” Nancy Hart, President of the Coalition, said. “There are clear and profound biases inherent in the death penalty system, including racial biases, biases against the indigent and the mentally ill, and the fact that it has historically targeted those least equipped to defend themselves in court. The imposition of the death penalty is a lengthy, costly process that does not serve the well-being of victims’ family members, putting them through decades of re-traumatization.”

NVCADP Community Organizer Branden Cunningham accused Senate leaders and the governor of “clear disregard for the communities most impacted by our deeply flawed death penalty system. Silencing those voices by preventing a hearing on the bill,” he said, “shows their priorities are not aligned with the people of Nevada.”