Likely voters in Clark County, Nevada overwhelmingly oppose the use of capital punishment against broad categories of vulnerable and impaired persons whom county prosecutors have been trying to execute, a new poll released by Vegas Watch on January 27, 2022 shows.

The poll, conducted by the Justice Research Group from December 1 to 13, 2021, found a significant disconnect between voters’ views on capital punishment and the practices of Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson (pictured). According to Vegas Watch, Clark County prosecutors have “repeatedly [sought] death against people who are mentally ill and have intellectual disabilities—including former service members struggling with PTSD.” On the other hand, substantial bipartisan majorities of the county’s voters told the pollsters that they oppose using the death penalty against these individuals.

The poll questions asked 314 likely voters, “Do you support or oppose Clark County district attorney Steve Wolfson seeking a death sentence against” six different types of defendants: people with a diagnosed mental illness, serious intellectual impairment, traumatic brain injury, veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, those who experienced severe physical or sexual abuse as a child, and defendants who were between the ages of 18 and 21 at the time of the offense. By margins of better than 2 to 1, voters opposed seeking the death penalty against those with mental illness, intellectual impairment, or brain damage, and veterans with PTSD. With significant partisan differences, voters narrowly opposed seeking the death penalty against adolescent offenders and victims of abuse.

Voter opposition was greatest when it came to seeking the death penalty against veterans with PTSD. 62% of voters said Wolfson should not seek a death sentence “against a person who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder after serving their country in the U.S. Armed Forces,” while 23% supported such prosecutions. 69% of Democrats, 60% of Independents, and 52% of Republicans opposed capitally prosecuting veterans with PTSD, while 12% of Democrats and 18% of Republicans and Independents supported it.

Wolfson is currently seeking to execute Zane Floyd, a decorated Marine with brain damage who was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome after his deployment in Guantánamo Bay. Wolfson sought and obtained a warrant for Floyd’s execution in May 2021, while the Nevada State Senate was considering a bill to abolish the state’s death penalty. The Senate majority leader and the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee are both employees of the Clark County DA’s office, and although the bill had passed the state House of Representatives, it never received a hearing or a vote in committee in the Senate.

Clark County voters by a 37-percentage-point margin opposed “seeking a death sentence against a person with serious intellectual impairment.” 60% of respondents, including 67% of Democrats, 60% of Independents, and 52% of Republicans opposed such prosecutions, while 27% of Republicans, 21% of Democrats, and 20% of Independents supported them. 59% opposed “seeking a death sentence against a person with a diagnosed mental illness” and “against a person with a traumatic brain injury.” 67% of Democrats, 60% of Independents, and 48% of Republicans opposed capital prosecutions of those with mental illness. 68% of Democrats, 63% of Independents, and 43% of Republicans opposed capital prosecutions of those with brain injuries. 29% of Republicans and 23% of Democrats and Independents supported the use of the death penalty against the mentally ill. 35% of Republicans, 22% of Democrats, and 19% of Independents endorsed capital prosecution of brain injured defendants.

Clark County respondents expressed significant partisan differences over the use of the death penalty against adolescent offenders and victims of physical or sexual abuse. A 45% plurality of respondents opposed “seeking a death sentence against a person who has endured severe physical or sexual abuse as a child,” while 36% supported it. Democrats opposed such prosecutions, 52% to 31% and Independents were split evenly 39% to 39%. Republicans narrowly approved of seeking the death penalty in cases of severe abuse, 40% to 38%.

When it came to adolescent offenders, a narrow plurality, 46% to 43% opposed “seeking the death penalty against a person who is over the age of 18 but under the age of 21.” Democrats strongly opposed the practice, 60% to 28%, while Republicans even more strongly supported it, 62% to 25%. Independents narrowly opposed such prosecutions, 48% to 45%.

Clark County’s Capital Prosecution Practices

Wolfson was the lead witness against a bill to abolish the death penalty that was introduced in the Nevada legislature during the 2021 legislative session. During his testimony, Wolfson said, “the death penalty should be reserved for the very rare and extreme circumstances” and claimed he sought it in only “the worst of the worst” cases. Assistant Public Defender Scott Coffee disputed that notion, telling Vegas Watch that Wolfson had filed 128 notices of intent to seek the death penalty since becoming District Attorney in 2012. “These cases are filed like candy,” he said.

Clark County has imposed more death sentences in the last decade than all but three counties in the nation, trailing only Riverside, CA; Los Angeles, CA; and Maricopa, AZ. They are the only counties in the country 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 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.

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.