Two missed chances
There were several issues Nevada’s legislators debated in 2017 but could not develop a consensus to move forward on, even in the Democratic caucuses.
One bill, Assembly Bill 237, would have eliminated the death penalty in Nevada, while another, Senate Bill 261, would have allowed terminally ill patients to choose to die with a doctor’s assistance.
Nevada hasn’t executed anyone since 2006 and will be unable to carry out the death penalty in the foreseeable future as the lethal drugs needed to do so are unavailable, but legislators still refused to give up the ultimate punishment. AB 237, sponsored by Assemblymember James Ohrenschall, D-Las Vegas, didn’t even make it out of the Judiciary Committee, chaired by another Democrat who works as a public defender in his day job.
There have always been a handful of legislators, such as Sen. Joe Neal and Assm. Bernie Anderson, who were strongly opposed to the state having the power to execute its citizens, but their numbers have never reached critical mass. Some progress has been made over the years in restricting the death penalty from being applied to certain sub-populations such as youth and persons with mental retardation, but Nevada has never come close to prohibition altogether.
Despite arguments that death penalty cases cost far more than non-death penalty cases and studies that show it is disproportionally applied to poor, minority populations, it’s not likely that Nevadans will change course and switch to the abolition side in 2019. After all, the state spent $900,000 over the last two years to build a new execution chamber at Ely State Prison. But legislators should be encouraged to consider further restrictions on the death penalty and prohibit its use for people with a severe mental illness.
States are uneven in the application of the death penalty for this population, with some using a standard of “rational understanding” of the punishment before it can be applied. Research has shown that many people on death row do suffer from severe mental illness. The American Bar Association has endorsed proposals to ban the practice just as it is prohibited for children and the intellectually disabled.
Nevada’s legislative version of “Death with Dignity,” SB 261, was modeled after successful laws in six states, including neighboring Oregon, where it has worked well. Sen. David Parks said he sponsored the bill at the request of a friend who suffered greatly from bladder cancer in her final days. The bill had many safeguards in place to ensure proper use of the law, but some disability advocates feared it could be used to hasten the deaths of people with severe disabilities.
The medical community in Nevada seemed split between the rights of patients to make their own choices about their health care and the ethical imperative of doctors to do no harm. Nevada’s medical association took a neutral position on the bill, acknowledging the tension between the two ethical principles of patient autonomy and the “do no harm” tenet.
It’s a difficult conversation to have in the public sphere but a necessary one. In the 2015 session, Sen. Joe Hardy—who is also a medical doctor—was so opposed to the concept he refused to give the bill a hearing in the Health Committee he chaired, depriving Nevadans of a public debate about an issue that eventually touches most families.
SB 261 barely passed the Senate on an 11-10 vote and was heard in the Assembly but did not advance from the Judiciary Committee. Perhaps the most poignant comment on the bill came from an unlikely source in the Senate. Rancher and Republican Sen. Pete Goicoechea voted in favor of the bill, saying he had seen far too many Nevadans choose a shotgun to end their misery.