The Nevada State Assembly has passed a bill that would abolish the state’s death penalty and resentence the prisoners currently on its death row to life without parole. It was the first time any death-penalty abolition bill had been reported out of committee and considered by either house of the Nevada legislature.

AB 395 passed the Assembly on April 13, 2021 by a vote of 26-16, with all Democrats supporting the measure and all Republicans opposing it. The bill advances to the state senate, where it faces uncertain prospects. SB 228, a less expansive bill that would have repealed the death penalty for future offenses but left it in place the death sentences of those already on death row, failed when the Senate Judiciary Committee took no action on it before the deadline for committee passage during the 2021 legislative session.

During argument on the Assembly floor, the bill’s sponsor, Las Vegas Assemblyman Steve Yeager, told his fellow legislators that “[n]ow is the right time to end our costly ineffective and inhumane death penalty.” “Nevada should join two thirds of the world’s countries who have already banned the death penalty, many of whom have determined that it violates fundamental human rights,” he said. “The government simply should not be in the business of death.”

If Nevada abolishes the death penalty, it will be the 24th state to do so, and the second this year. Virginia abolished the death penalty in March, following Colorado’s repeal of its death penalty in 2020 and New Hampshire’s abolition in 2019.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada hailed the Assembly’s vote, calling it “a historic moment” that brings the state “one step closer to ending this racist, barbaric practice.” However, the next step, passage in the Senate, remains problematic.

While Democrats have a three-seat majority in the Senate, two of its most prominent members — Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro and Judiciary Committee Chair Melanie Scheible — are employees of the Clark County (Las Vegas) District Attorney’s office and their boss, District Attorney Steve Wolfson, along with several other district attorneys and the Nevada District Attorney’s Association testified against the bill. Cannizzarro and Schleible wield significant power over whether the bill will be considered in committee and on the House floor and, if the bill reaches the floor, its supporters can afford only one Democratic vote against it unless they can attract support from Republican senators.

Clark County’s Historical Abuse of Capital Punishment

Clark County’s disproportionate use of capital punishment and history of misconduct in death penalty cases shines a spotlight on the potential conflict of interest facing the senators who have dual employment in the Clark County D.A.’s office, as well as the outsized influence of prosecutors in the legislative process. A Death Penalty Information Center analysis of death-row data collected by the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund found that, as of October 1, 2020, the 52 people on death row or facing capital retrials or resentencings in Clark County were more than in all but six other U.S. counties. By itself, Clark County accounted for three-quarters of Nevada’s death-row population. It is one of only four counties in the nation — trailing Riverside, CA; Los Angeles, CA; and Maricopa, AZ — to have averaged more than one death sentence per year since 2012. All the other counties in Nevada combined have imposed just one new death sentence in the past decade.

A 2016 study by Harvard University’s Fair Punishment Project found that of the 16 most prolific death-sentencing counties in the U.S. in the years 2010 through 2015, Clark County had the highest rate of convictions or death sentences overturned as a result of prosecutorial misconduct. The Project reported that the Nevada Supreme Court had found misconduct in 47% of the Clark County death penalty cases it reviewed on direct appeal during the previous decade.

Two Clark County capital defendants, Paul Browning and Roberto Mirando, have been exonerated following wrongful capital convictions. Another, Ha’im Al Matin Sharif, spent 30 years on death row after being wrongfully convicted of killing his girlfriend’s 11-month-old daughter based on junk-science testimony. Medical evidence later revealed that the baby had actually died from infantile scurvy. Clark County prosecutors nonetheless insisted that, to secure his release, Sharif plead guilty to lesser charges, leaving him a murder conviction on his record.

In November 2017, the Nevada Board of Pardons Commissioners pardoned Fred Steese, who had spent 21 years in prison wrongfully convicted of murder. Clark County prosecutors had sought the death penalty against him while having in their possession — and withholding from the defense — evidence that Steese was not even in Nevada when the murder occurred. In 2012, a Nevada trial judge issued an Order of Actual Innocence, declaring that Steese didn’t kill anyone. However, Clark County prosecutors refused to admit they had convicted an innocent man and agreed to release Steese from prison only if he entered a plea admitting that there had been sufficient evidence on which he could be convicted.

Clark County prosecutors also have a history of racial discrimination in capital prosecutions. Between 2014 and 2017, the Nevada Supreme Court ordered new trials in three death penalty cases because Clark County prosecutors had discriminatorily excluded individuals of color from jury service.

Nevada has sentenced 189 defendants to death under its 1973 statute. The majority of those death sentences have been reversed on appeal. As of October 1, 2020, seventy people remained on the state’s death row or were facing capital sentencing retrials. The state has executed 12 prisoners since the 1970s but has not carried out any executions since April 2006. Eleven of the prisoners it has executed waived their appeals. The state has not executed anyone who contested his conviction or death sentence since March 1996.

In 2017, Clark County death-row prisoner Scott Dozier waived his appeals in an effort to force Nevada to execute him. A Nevada trial court halted the execution after drug manufacturer Alvogen sued the state, alleging that the Nevada Department of Corrections had obtained the drugs “by subterfuge.” Dozier subsequently hanged himself in his death-row cell.


James DeHaven, Nevada Assembly advances death penal­ty ban in his­toric vote for lethal injec­tion oppo­nents, Reno Gazette Journal, April 13, 2021; Danielle Haynes, Nevada Assembly repeals death penal­ty, sends to Senate, UPI, April 13, 2021; Michelle Rindels and Tabitha Mueller, Nevada Assembly votes to abol­ish death penal­ty in his­toric move; bill’s future uncer­tain in Senate, The Nevada Independent, April 13, 2021; Michael Lyle, Assembly pass­es bill to abol­ish death penal­ty, sends it to the Senate, Nevada Current, April 13, 2021; David Charns, Nevada Assembly votes to abol­ish death penal­ty, KLAS, Las Vegas, April 132021

For sen­tenc­ing data, see Recent Death Sentences by Name, Race, County, and Year and the links to each year from 2012 through 2020. Nevada did not impose any new death sen­tences in 2011.

For more infor­ma­tion about the death penal­ty in Clark County, see:

Death Penalty Information Center, OUTLIER COUNTIES: Official Misconduct, Race Bias Permeate Death Penalty in Clark County, Nevada, September 82016.

Death Penalty Information Center, State Courts in Nevada, Pennsylvania Rule Prosecutorial Misconduct Bars Retrial, Exonerating Paul Browning and Kareem Johnson, June 22020

Death Penalty Information Center, Nevada Man Convicted by Prosecutorial Misconduct and​‘Woefully Inadequate’ Defense Counsel Released After 33 Years on Death Row, September 62019

Death Penalty Information Center, 2017 Year End Report: New Death Sentences Demonstrate Increasing Geographic Isolation (“Nearly one-third (31%) of the 39 new death sen­tences imposed in the United States in 2017 came from just three coun­ties, Riverside, California; Clark, Nevada; and Maricopa, Arizona, accord­ing to sta­tis­tics com­piled for DPIC’s annu­al year end report”).

Death Penalty Information Center, Clark County, Nevada Losing Capital Convictions Because of Prosecutors’ Race Discrimination in Jury Selection, December 222017.

Death Penalty Information Center, Nevada Pardons Man Imprisoned 21 Years as a Result of Wrongful Capital Murder Prosecution, November 172017.

Death Penalty Information Center, Nevada Death-Row Prisoner Released on Plea Deal After Medical Evidence Suggests No Crime Occurred, June 202017

Death Penalty Information Center, Las Vegas Prosecutor Who Obtained Wrongful Capital Conviction Engaged in Pattern of Misconduct, May 312017.