The information on this page provides a brief overview of capital clemency in Nevada and is not intended to serve as the basis for a capital clemency petition or campaign. For additional information, please see the full Nevada Clemency Memo (May 2017) prepared by the ABA Capital Clemency Resource Initiative:
The Constitution of the State of Nevada grants the clemency power to the governor, justices of the state Supreme Court, and the Attorney General:
The governor, justices of the supreme court, and attorney general, or a major part of them, of whom the governor shall be one, may, upon such conditions and with such limitations and restrictions as they may think proper, remit fines and forfeitures, commute punishments…and grant pardons, after convictions, in all cases, except treason and impeachments, subject to such regulations as may be provided by law relative to the manner of applying for pardons.
Together, these individuals make up the State Board of Pardons Commissioners (“Board”). In capital cases, the Board has the authority to stay the execution of a judgment of death and the ability to commute death sentences to a life sentence that does not allow parole, but may not commute to a sentence where parole is ever possible. The Nevada Governor serves as Chair of the Board.
The Decision Maker(s)
Statute mandates that members of the Board must meet at least semiannually. The governor is the Chair of the Board. Members are not required to have any specific training or qualifications to serve on the Board; however, the Secretary is selected on the basis of “training, experience, capacity, and interest in correctional services.” The Secretary establishes and posts procedures and criteria for the selection of applications.
How Petitions are Brought
Applications for clemency are obtained from the Secretary of the Board or wardens of Department of Corrections’ facilities, and must be mailed to the Secretary. The Secretary shall establish procedures and criteria for the selection of applications for clemency to be considered by the board at the meeting.
All applications for a pardon or commutation must at least include: the court in which the judgment was rendered, the kind or character of punishment, the name of the person submitting the application, the grounds on which the application is based, and any other information deemed relevant by the Secretary. The lengthy criteria used for the selection of applications are posted on the Board’s website, but the Nevada Administrative Code indicates that a member of the Board can select an application for consideration notwithstanding those criteria:
. . . a member of the Board may select an application for clemency for the consideration of the Board at a meeting notwithstanding the procedures and criteria established by the Secretary . . . any regulation of the Board or the recommendation or absence of a recommendation from the Director of the Department or the Chief Parole and Probation Officer. A member of the Board who wishes to select an application for the consideration of the Board must inform the Secretary of the selection not less than 50 days before the date of the meeting at which the Board will consider the application, unless the member demonstrates good cause for a shorter period of time.
The governor has the authority to remove an application from consideration after it is selected by the Board for review.
According to the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, approximately five percent of clemency petitions are forwarded by relevant staff members for consideration by the Board. The Secretary has final approval in placing an application on the agenda for a semiannual meeting, but the applications selected for consideration “must be accompanied by a recommendation from the Director of the Department [of Corrections].” Once placed on the agenda, the applicant receives a hearing before the Board, and the victim’s relative must be notified of the hearing.
While hearings before the Board are informal, and rules of evidence do not apply, the Board can require that all testimony be given under oath, require the presence of the applicant, and accept any affidavits or depositions taken and certified by a district judge, county clerk, or notary public.
Meetings of the Board are public, can be viewed on live streaming video from the Supreme Court of Nevada, and transcripts can be purchased from the court reporter. The Board also publishes the results of meetings, which include the decisions made by the Board in both prisoner and community cases.
Responding to a Petition
The Board considers a variety of factors to determine if clemency should be granted. Criteria published by the Board states that applications in capital cases where the offense was committed between 1982 and 1995 are not considered for a commutation that allows parole until twenty years have passed, and for capital offenses committed after 1995, prisoners will not be considered for a commutation that allows for parole at all. Other factors that apply to all prisoner applications include evidence of self-improvement, illness or disability, proportionality of sentence to sentence received by co-defendants, participation in the offense, and history of abuse at the hands of the victim.
When capital clemency applications are reviewed, the governor must be present, and a decision must be made by a majority of the Board.
If a majority votes in favor of clemency and the commutation of a death sentence, the Board must issue a written statement to the officer or authority charged with executing the punishment. That notice must include the name of the applicant, the time and place of conviction, the kind of punishment substituted for the death penalty, and the place where the substituted punishment is to be served.
The Board receives approximately 1,000 commutation petitions each year, from both capital and non-capital cases. Historically, the Board granted hearings for approximately 20 applicants, and granted commutations in about half of those hearings between 1990 and 2011. Applicants are typically told of the Board’s decision in approximately eight weeks, but the process can last up to six months.
Current Clemency Decision Maker(s)
As stated above, the Nevada Board of Pardons that is responsible for reviewing and deciding on clemency applications consists of the governor, justices of the Supreme Court of Nevada, and the state attorney general.
Governor Steve Sisolakwas sworn into office on January 7, 2019 as the first Democratic governor of the state in two decades. Sisolak served on the Nevada Board of Regents for 10 years. In 2008, after serving 10 years as a University Regent, Sisolak was elected to the Clark County Commission.
Governor Sisolak once stated, “I’m opposed to the capital punishment. . . . “One there’s a cost factor associated with it that’s significant. Two, I think there have been cases where it was proven that the wrong person was executed, and three, that I don’t think that I should play God in determining who dies and who lives.” A week after making that statement, however, Sisolak clarified that he believed capital punishment “might be warranted” in certain extreme cases.
In February 2019, Nevada lawmakers introduced a bill that would abolish the death penalty in the state in the hopes of diverting the money spent on the death penalty to education and law enforcement. Lawmakers hope that Governor Sisolak will sign the bill if it lands on his desk.
Attorney General Aaron Ford
Aaron Fordwas sworn in as Nevada’s Attorney General on January 7, 2019, and is the first African-American person to take constitutional office in the state. Prior to being elected Attorney General, Mr. Ford served in a variety of positions in state government, including as the Minority Leader of the State Senate, Assistant Majority Whip, chair of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources, vice chair of the Senate Committee on Education, and member of the Judiciary Committee. After obtaining his law degree from Ohio State University, Mr. Ford spent many years in private practice. He has stated that he opposes the death penalty, but will still enforce the state’s capital punishment law.
Justices of the Supreme Court of Nevada
Justices of the Supreme Court of Nevada are elected in nonpartisan elections, and serve for six year terms. Vacancies are filled through appointments by the governor. The current justices are: Chief Justice Mark Gibbons, Justice Kristina Pickering, Justice Elissa F. Cadish, Justice James W. Hardesty, Justice Ron D. Parraguirre, Justice Abbi Silver, and Justice Lidia S. Stiglich.
The Board has granted capital clemency only once to Thomas Nevius, commuting his death sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole in 2002. Nevius was intellectually disabled, but evidence of his disability was not presented to the jury because of incompetent trial counsel. Six of the jurors in the case later said they would not have voted for execution if they had known of Nevius’s intellectual disability. Further, the prosecutor in the case used peremptory challenges to remove all African Americans from the jury panel.
Newsworthy Case: Scott Dozier
Scott Dozier was convicted in 2007 for killing and dismembering 22-year-old Jeremiah Miller, an associate in the methamphetamine trade. His case gained national attention when Nevada proposed to execute him with an untested fentanyl-based drug combination after being unable to replace its previous lethal-injection drug supply. Dozier would have been the first person ever executed using fentanyl. Dozier was very clear that he desired to be executed, “even if suffering [was] inevitable.” Dozier’s case prompted a national debate about the death penalty and shed light on the efforts of some states to obtain drugs from pharmaceutical companies who insist they do not want their drugs used in executions. Despite not opposing his own execution, Dozier allowed federal public defenders to use his case to challenge the newly proposed execution method as a means of helping other prisoners on death row. Drug companies also joined the lawsuit, arguing that these products should not be used for executions. This litigation resulted in Dozier being granted two stays of execution. Dozier committed suicide on January 5, 2019, however, after many attempts to stop all appeals and proceed with his execution. It is currently unclear how Dozier’s death will affect the legal disputes still in play concerning Nevada’s lethal-injection drug supply.