Nevada AG’s Office

100 N. Carson Street
Carson City, Nevada 89701-4717

Attorney General

Telephone (775) 684-1100
Fax (775) 684-1108 WEBSITE:
E-Mail: [email protected]

First Assistant Attorney General


tele: (775) 684-1267
Capital Case Coordinator


After Columbia University released the "Liebman Study" of death penalty cases from 1973-1995 showing that Nevada has a 68% "overall error rate" in death penalty cases and has the largest "death row" in America per population, the Nevada Attorney General examined the Liebman study and did our own research. Liebman was flat wrong about Nevada!

First, some observations about Liebman’s methods. Death penalty records are kept by the Nevada Supreme Court, Attorney General, Department of Prisons, 17 district attorneys and 17 court clerks, yet Liebman got his from criminal defense attorneys (who apparently reported their wins, but not their losses) and the NAACP Capital Punishment Project (whose agenda is the abolition of the death penalty).

Second, it appears Liebman picked and chose his cases, tailoring the study to get certain results. He took cases from 1973-1995 for some results; 1993-1995 for other results; and 1973-April, 2000 for others. He used only published opinions for some results, but used unpublished opinions for others. He used only Nevada Supreme Court or federal appeal cases for some results, but added lower state court cases to increase reversals. Liebman didn’t count all Nevada cases. He excluded killers who discontinued their appeals. (He presumed they did so due to frustration with the system, not because they were proved guilty and accepted it.) Incredibly, he didn’t even count the eight men executed in Nevada since 1977!

Liebman says Nevada seeks death too often and says we have 28.23 death sentences per every 1000 inmates. But that would be 268 capital inmates, and Nevada has only 88 on "death row" now, out of 992 convicted murderers and over 9500 total inmates. Nevada juries actually sentence only 9% of our convicted killers to death.

Liebman totally ignored Nevada’s unique growth situation. Nevada’s population grew by 50.6% between 1990-98, more than any other state. The simple 23-year population averaging he did doesn’t reflect our spike-in people, or in homicides. Nevada had 1.8 million residents by 1998, but also over 42 million visitors here that same year. "Per resident" statistics mis-portray Nevada because our tourist traffic gives us a high rate of transient crime, including murders. Other states with similar resident populations (Nebraska, New Mexico, West Virginia) have only 30-50% of our prison population. Over 40% of our current "death row" inmates were not residents when they committed murder in Nevada.

To accurately review Nevada’s death penalty, we researched every death penalty decision reported by the Nevada Supreme Court from 1973 to April 2000-the longest time-frame Liebman used. We didn’t use lower court rulings or unpublished reversals, like Liebman did, because we would’ve had to balance those against lower court or unpublished affirmations of the death sentence. Those aren’t compiled in a single place, so we would’ve had to research every opinion written in every county or state court for 27 years-a monumental task.

Liebman reported 108 death sentences, with a total of 34 state court reversals for an overall error rate of 38%. Our research found 152 cases, with 30 reversals (two of which were inmates with two or more death sentences who got one reduced to "life without.") That’s only a 19% error rate.

Liebman creates the impression that the reversals are due to innocence, but most are attorney or judge procedural errors. Some are cases where juries followed the existing law, but later the Supreme Court changed it, and constitutional changes are applied retroactively on death cases, to give the defendant every benefit. Liebman also failed to report that after a new trial or penalty hearing, in 12 of those 31 cases death sentences were imposed again. In 13 cases, inmates received "life-in-prison" sentences.

Those were not inmates found to be innocent of their murders!

Liebman took only a 2-year "snapshot" of federal habeas, found that four Nevada cases were reviewed and two of those were reversed. From that, he concluded that Nevada has a 50 % overall error rate for all years. We researched all reported Nevada federal habeas cases for the whole period.

We found 17 federal decisions with four reversals. That is only a 23% error rate. Again, Liebman failed to report that two of those four defendants received new death sentences upon re-sentencing.

The ACLU’s claims of "gross patterns of [racial] discrimination in death penalty administration," aren’t true for Nevada either. They said death was disproportionately given to non-white killers of white victims, and men instead of women. However, of the 50 men executed here since 1905, 42 were white; four were native American; two were black; and two were Asian.

Even the NAACP’s "Death Row USA" (Spring 2000) reports that nationally, 52.48% of those executed in the USA were white killers of white victims; only 23.84% were black killers of white victims. Murder is not an "equal opportunity" crime either, as only 1.5% of America’s killers are female, according to the NAACP. Nevada has not executed a woman yet, and the only one on "death row", (Priscilla Ford) is still pursuing appeals.

Liebman himself admits that over 2/3 of Americans still favor the death penalty. (Most polls show a higher rate.) There simply is no evidence from Liebman, or anyone else, that innocent people are being executed. If the courts are finding attorney or judge error in 19-23% of Nevada’s cases over 27 years, that proves the review system is working well. When killers receive death sentences again after retrial or a new penalty hearing, that is justice at work!