In this section, our attorneys explain Nevada’s criminal laws and legal concepts, A to Z
Special circumstances is another term for “aggravating factors” in Nevada capital murder cases. In order for a person to be sentenced to the death penalty for first-degree murder (NRS 200.030), the state court must find that there was at least one aggravating factor. And this aggravating factor(s) must not be outweighed by any mitigating factors.
Aggravating factors make the defendant in a criminal case seem more blameworthy. For instance, if someone tortures and kills a victim, the torture counts as an “aggravating factor.” It makes the killing even more egregious. And the district court jury (“trier of fact”) can use this aggravating circumstance to justify imposing the death sentence.
Aggravating factors are the opposite of mitigating factors, which make a defendant in a criminal case seem less blameworthy. An example is if a murderer was abused as a child. This childhood abuse does not excuse the murder, but it does show the defendant in a more sympathetic light. And the district court jury can use this mitigating circumstance to justify imposing prison instead of death.
During the sentencing phase following a murder conviction, the district attorney presents evidence of aggravating factors, while the criminal defense attorney presents evidence of mitigating ones.
NRS 200.033 spells out the 15 special circumstances that can make a first-degree murder aggravated – thereby making the defendant eligible for capital punishment:
Nevada’s criminal justice system requires that the jury find at least one aggravating factor before it can sentence a defendant to death. But if the mitigating factors outweigh the aggravating ones, the jury may not impose death.
First-degree murder comprises both premeditated murder as well as felony murder (killing done in the commission of a crime, such as a robbery or carjacking gone wrong).
Second-degree murder has no premeditation. Although the defendant acted with reckless indifference to human life, the defendant did not have the specific intent to kill anyone. A classic example is playing Russian Roulette. Anyone knows death is likely to result from firing a deadly weapon / destructive device like a firearm.
Note that voluntary manslaughter is a less serious crime than murder. It comprises “heat of passion” killings done without premeditation.
A category A felony, first-degree murder carries the death sentence only if there is at least one aggravating circumstance, and it is not outweighed by any mitigating circumstances. People sentenced to death often remain on death row for years before their execution. And currently, executions are on hold while the state is having trouble obtaining the supplies necessary for lethal injection. (Note that death row is in Ely, not Las Vegas.)
Otherwise, the punishment for first-degree killing includes:
The court does not need to make a determination about whether aggravating circumstances exist to decide whether to grant the possibility of parole.
Also a category A felony, second-degree killing carries:
State executions are also legal in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi. Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Wyoming. (Despite popular belief, Colorado is not a death penalty state.) And in 2020, the United States Supreme Court let stand an appeals court ruling permitting the Trump administration to resume implementing the death penalty in federal capital punishment cases following a 17-year lull. (BOURGEOIS, ALFRED, ET AL. V. BARR, ATT’Y GEN., ET AL., No. 19-1348 (19A1050) June 29, 2020.)
Learn more about our Las Vegas murder defense lawyers.
A former Los Angeles prosecutor, attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT). He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Dr Phil, The Today Show and Court TV. Mr Shouse has been recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the Top 100 Criminal and Top 100 Civil Attorneys.