For decades, Michael Pescetta has sought to help dozens of defendants facing Nevada’s often imposed yet seldom used death penalty.
And in a state with a per capita death penalty rate that ranks fourth in the country — topping states like Texas and California, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center — he keeps busy.
Pescetta, an assistant federal public defender in Las Vegas who specializes in capital punishment cases, is often a final resort for inmates who have exhausted their options at the state level to appeal a death penalty conviction. Today, his office represents more than half of the 83 men sitting on death row.
Capital punishment has faced scrutiny nationwide in recent months after drug experimentation apparently led to a series of botched executions in three states. The topic should gain even more traction in the Silver State as officials scramble to assemble a mandated legislative audit of the state death penalty by Jan. 31, 2015.
Pescetta chatted with the Sun this week about the death penalty. His answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q. How many inmates has Nevada executed since it began carrying out the death penalty in 1976?
A. One person was involuntarily executed in 1996. His name was Richard Moran — he was a client of mine. He had multiple murders during a period in which he was heavily under the influence of alcohol and drugs, and his case went very quickly through the system.
Another 11 were all volunteers — that is, people who gave up any further appeals and asked to be executed.
The first person executed in Nevada was Jesse Bishop — he was executed in 1979, and he was a volunteer. He committed the offenses in 1977, and he was executed in under two years from the date of the offenses.
Why do people volunteer for the death penalty?
People often start out suicidal. They ask the police to shoot them. It’s like a slow version of suicide by cop.
And most people on death row have mental health issues.
What does death row in Nevada physically look like? How does it differ from a normal prison setting in the state?
Nevada’s death row is at Ely State Prison, a maximum security facility.
In the general population at Ely, there are two to a cell, at most, unless someone is being disciplined.
Capital punishment inmates are all put into single cells.
In these maximum security institutions, contact with other inmates is limited. Most people in there spend 23 hours a day in a cell. This is not like being out in the yard with other inmates.
It’s much more controlled, regimented.
Nevada hasn’t executed anyone since 2006, and the issue of botched executions in Ohio, Oklahoma and Arizona in recent months could lead to more scrutiny about the process locally. How prepared is the state to execute someone again?
The execution protocol in effect in 2006 was what they call a three-drug “cocktail.”
It’s sodium thiopental, which is an anaesthetic; pancuronium bromide, which is a paralytic; and potassium chloride, which is what stops the heart.
All of those drugs, if the state has them at the time, have a shelf life that we would be past now. And as I understand, the execution protocol in effect at the time was that the state got the drugs for the execution when the execution was pending. They did not keep those drugs on hand.
Sodium thiopental is no longer readily available for executions. And that’s why in the recent executions in Arizona and Ohio and Oklahoma, they have been using different drugs — sometimes one drug, sometimes two drugs — but they’re essentially experimenting.
The number of drugs available for this purpose and the willingness of manufacturers and suppliers to supply them is very different now than it used to be.
So, at this point the question of what kind of execution protocol the Nevada Department of Corrections would use if an execution were scheduled is unknown.
The old protocol specified these three drugs that had traditionally been used.
Where do most death penalty cases originate in Nevada? Is it significant that the state’s per capita ratio is relatively high compared with other places?
No other county in the state has as many death penalty cases as Clark County. There probably aren’t more than three or four in the entire rest of the state.
The ratio of death row inmates to lawyers is significantly high. We have such a small bar compared to bigger states — there’s less legal talent available to do criminal work.
2. Nevada’s Death Row
Posted: Dec 28, 2000 9:41 PM Updated: Dec 28, 2000 9:51 PM
George Knapp’s Street Talk Led by Award-winning investigative reporter George Knapp, the Eyewitness News I-TEAM is the top television investigative unit in southern Nevada. Political expert Jon Ralston provides insight into local and state government, and former Mayor Jan Jones adds an insider’s viewer of City Hall. I-TEAM photographer Eric Sorenson rounds out this first-class investigative unit.
More than 80 convicted killers live on Nevada’s death row. They’re in the state prison in Ely, called by some the toughest prison in America. George Knapp of the I-Team was allowed a rare visit inside the prison and inside death row.
There we were, wandering around in a room full of convicted killers. But there was plenty of firepower behind us, and according to prison officials, the men on death row are probably the best-behaved cons in the whole joint.
The dozens of men housed on Nevada’s death row live in cells identical to those of all the other prisoners. If they have money, they can buy their own TVs. They get let out into the communal room in small groups to play cards or socialize. Their small exercise yard is the only place in the prison you’ll see free weights.
Ely Warden E. K. McDaniel says: “I don’t believe in them doing weights, giving people equipment to beat us up with.”
Of the 1,000 inmates at Ely, nearly half are kept in some sort of segregated custody. A child killer like Jeremy Strohmeyer is kept separate because his crime would invite violence from other inmates. Convicted killer Pat McKenna, who escaped twice from the old max prison in Carson City and once led a takeover of the Las Vegas jail, is technically a death row inmate but is kept completely isolated in the darkest bowels of supermax.
Convicts are sent to Ely for only a few reasons: either because they’ve been sentenced to death, or are doing a long stretch of time, or if they’re a behavior problem elsewhere. Strangely, the death row cons are perhaps the best behaved here.
McDaniel says: “They’re the least problematic group in the facility. Most spend their time on how to get out from under the death sentence.”
When McDaniel was asked whether the death row inmates are the best behaved, he answered: “I wouldn’t say that, but they’re easier to manage. They have everything to gain, everything to lose.”
When a high profile inmate like Strohmeyer arrives in prison, the cons know about it. The typical inmate is nervous when he gets here but often puts up a front.
McDaniel says: “Put up a facade like they’re a tough guy. Most are nervous, people who’ve done a lot of time, ‘life on the installment plan,’ I call it. ‘How’s it going? I’m back from vacation.'”
Inmates who behave themselves can eventually be permitted jobs, such as making draperies. The prison isn’t really interested in rehabilitation. The higher priority is to protect the public and the staff. Inmates come third.
There has never been an escape from Ely, although Pat McKenna once plotted to bust out of death row. McDaniel credits his staff, which is constantly training. The warden says an officer is much preferable to high tech whiz-bang measures.
“Nothing will replace the eyes and ears of a corrections officer sitting in a tower,” McDaniel says. “C ameras, video equipment, those are great, but I’d rather have an officer on watch 24 hours a day.”
The warden says the biggest security problem at the prison comes from visitors trying to smuggle in contraband. We found out there’s a pretty thorough search when you enter the place. But they try all sorts of ways, especially the mail.
Yes, I asked whether they allow the delivery of cakes to inmates. The answer is no.