A murder conviction doesn't guarantee the death penalty. The jury must first find that there were "aggravating" circumstances to the homicide before it can impose capital punishment.
Even if the jury does find aggravating circumstances, it's still not obligated to impose death. And a good Nevada criminal defense attorney may be able to present enough "mitigating" circumstances to outweigh any aggravating ones.
This article explains Nevada laws for "capital murder." Continue reading to learn how courts determine whether to resort to the death penalty, and how defendants may try to avoid it.
Capital murder is a criminal homicide which potentially carries the death penalty in Nevada. Note that in California, capital murder is also called "special circumstances murder."
No. The Nevada crime of murder is divided into two sub-crimes. The less serious is second-degree murder, which never carries the death penalty. The most serious is first-degree murder, which may carry the death penalty.
First-degree murder in turn includes five types of homicides:
Any of these types of first-degree murder potentially carries the death penalty in Nevada.
No. If the prosecution is seeking the death penalty, the jury decides whether to impose death or just prison.
No. All defendants in first-degree murder cases get a sentencing hearing
in Nevada regardless of whether they were convicted at trial or pleaded guilty (or no contest). It's during the penalty hearing that the jury determines whether or not to impose death or prison.
Note that sometimes defendants agree to a plea bargain where they plead guilty to first-degree murder in exchange for the prosecution's promise not to seek the death penalty. This way the defendant avoids death, and the prosecution avoids having to put on a trial.
Yes. Even if only one juror votes against the death penalty, then defendant may not be sentenced to capital punishment.
Alterative sentences to the death penalty in Nevada first-degree murder cases include:
Note that murder is a category A felony in Nevada, the most serious type of crime.
Yes. Defendants convicted of first-degree murder may not be put to death if they were either:
Therefore the most severe punishment these "death ineligible" defendants may receive is life in prison without the possibility of parole.
A jury may not sentence a defendant to death unless it finds beyond a reasonable doubt that there is one or more "aggravating circumstances" which outweigh any "mitigating circumstances."
"Aggravating circumstances" are facts which make the defendant seem especially egregious, such as torturing the victim prior to death. In contrast, "mitigating circumstances" make the defendant seem less blameworthy, such as if he/she had an abusive childhood.
Note that a sentencing hearing is similar to a mini-trial in that both the prosecution and defense present evidence to support their arguments and to rebut the opposing side's arguments.
Nevada law spells out fourteen specific aggravating factors which each can raise the maximum punishment for first-degree murder from life in prison to death. The following are the aggravating circumstances in Nevada first-degree murder cases:
Note that accomplices to murder may be sentenced to death even if they didn't physically kill the victim. The prosecution just needs to show that the accomplice knew that lethal force may be used on the victim. North Las Vegas criminal defense attorney Michael Becker gives an example:
Sam and Bill decide to rob a house in Henderson. Sam knows that Bill is carrying a gun and that Bill would use it to kill anyone who tries to stop them. During the robbery the owner comes back to the house, and Bill shoots him dead. The police come and book Sam and Bill at the Henderson Detention Center for first-degree murder. Eventually, they're both sentenced to death.
Even though Sam didn't pull the trigger in the above example, he could be sentenced to death along with Bill because Sam knew that Bill would use deadly force on anyone who thwarted the robbery.
Mitigating circumstances in Nevada first-degree murder cases can be any information or testimony that makes the defendant seem less deserving of capital punishment. Typical examples are:
During the penalty phase of a first-degree murder case, friends and family typically write the court letters attesting to the defendant's goodness and requesting leniency. Boulder City criminal defense attorney Mike Castillo gives an illustration:
John has been convicted of first-degree murder in Nevada. His previous robbery conviction counts as an aggravating circumstance. But he has several friends write the court to say that John was brought up in a house of thieves and that he was taught from a young age to steal. John's defense attorney also points out that John is only eighteen and didn't know any better. The jury is swayed by the letters and ultimately decides to sentence John to prison instead of capital punishment.
Even though John in the above example was "death eligible" because of his previous robbery conviction, the jury determined that John's youth and tough childhood outweighed his criminal history. Therefore, the jury imposed prison.
Yes, capital murder cases may be appealed to the Nevada Supreme Court. If the Nevada Supreme Court can't conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that the jury would still have imposed death despite a false aggravating circumstance, the Court is obligated to vacate the death sentence and order a new sentencing hearing.
Never. Even if the jury unanimously agrees that there are aggravating circumstances which outweigh the mitigating circumstances, the jury still has the discretion not to impose death. The jury is never obligated to order the death penalty.
If you're facing "capital murder" charges, call our Las Vegas criminal defense attorneys at 702-DEFENSE (333-3673) for a free consultation. We'll do everything we can to resolve the case as favorably as possible.
We represent client throughout Nevada, including Las Vegas, Henderson, Washoe County, Reno, Carson City, Laughlin, Mesquite, Bunkerville, Moapa, Elko, Pahrump, Searchlight and Tonopah.
For more read our articles on Las Vegas criminal defense attorneys, Boulder City criminal defense attorneys, North Las Vegas criminal defense attorneys, Henderson Detention Center, Nevada hate crime laws, Nevada crime of sexual assault, Nevada crime of robbery, Nevada crime of first-degree kidnapping, Nevada crime of invasion of the home, Nevada crime of first-degree arson, category A felony in Nevada, sentencing hearing in Nevada, death penalty in Nevada, Nevada crime of murder, and Nevada crime of felony murder. For information on California Penal Code 190.2 PC | Special Circumstances Murder, go to our article on California Penal Code 190.2 PC | Special Circumstances Murder.
If you or a loved one faces misdemeanor or felony charges, contact our Las Vegas NV criminal defense attorneys at (702) DEFENSE. We'd be glad to meet with you for a free consultation. We practice throughout Nevada, including Las Vegas, Henderson, Reno, Carson City, Boulder City, Mesquite and Laughlin.
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