Nevada’s death debate

State lawmakers to consider curtailing the death penalty

The odds were against accused murderer Thomas Nevius from the start. Nevius is black. The Las Vegas jury wasn’t. In 1982, Nevius, whose intelligence quotient is in the 64-68 range, received the death penalty for the shooting death of Las Vegas resident David Kinnamon.

The jury found Nevius guilty of breaking into the Kinnamon home with three others, holding a gun to the face of Rochelle Kinnamon and attempting to rape her. When Rochelle’s husband returned home from work, Nevius shot him, the jury decided, and sentenced Nevius to death by lethal injection.

More than 18 years later, 43-year-old Nevius still waits on death row at Ely State Prison. Courts have rejected his claims that the Clark County District Attorney’s office improperly used challenges to remove black jurors from the panel that heard his case.

Even a remark attributed to the original prosecutor, reiterated in a dissenting court opinion and quoted in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, did little to sway opinion.

“You don’t think I want all those niggers on my jury, do you?” asked the prosecutor, according to evidence presented by Nevius and cited by Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Springer in his 1998 dissenting opinion.

Stays of execution were granted to Nevius in 1986, 1996 and 1997.

Nevius is one of 90 people on death row in Nevada prisons. Two of these individuals may be killed by the state this year, according to an Associated Press report. But at least two proposals to curtail the death penalty in Nevada will be considered this legislative session.

Nevada Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, plans to introduce a bill that would exempt from the death penalty people with IQs under 71, the cut-off point for mental retardation. And Sen. Joe Neal, D-North Las Vegas, will back a bill to end Nevada’s death penalty altogether."Polling shows the public is generally opposed to the death penalty for the mentally retarded when an alternative exists, such as life without the possibility of parole, which Nevada has,” Leslie said.

Already, 13 states have banned the death penalty for this group, Leslie said.

“Also, the Supreme Court has indicated they are waiting for the states to act on this matter as they consider a national ban,” she said.Grant Stitt, chair of the criminal justice department at the University of Nevada, Reno, said the death penalty is something he still grapples with. And when a person’s sanity or intelligence level is in question, it’s even harder.

Just how responsible for their actions can individuals of diminished mental capacity be?

“I think we need to be concerned,” Stitt said. “It brings up the whole issue of legal vs. moral responsibility.”

Legal responsibility implies actual guilt, the committing of a crime. The question of moral responsibility, Stitt said, is whether that person, who may not know what he’s doing, should be punished.

“There’s no simple answer to that question,” he said.

Stitt said he’s convinced that the use of the death penalty does nothing to deter violent crime.

“The evidence is in,” he said. “That argument doesn’t work.”

The only argument left for the death penalty, then, is that it somehow appeases society.

"It’s the retribution argument, an eye for an eye," Stitt said. "Some crimes are so heinous that it helps to relieve society’s collective conscience."