Commentary - May 13, 2021 - by Ray Hagar
The bill to abolish the death penalty produced some of the most emotional testimony of the 2021 Legislature, Assembly Judiciary Chairman Steve Yeager said Thursday on Nevada Newsmakers.
"What a debate like the death penalty shows you is that, unfortunately, we are human beings and we are capable of doing really awful things to one another," Yeager told host Sam Shad.
Yeager recalled that perhaps the most heart-breaking testimony came from Heather Snedeker of Las Vegas, who spoke to the committee via Zoom during its March 31 meeting.
"It was really powerful testimony," Yeager said.
Yeager told the story of Snedeker's testimony at a critical time. AB395 must be approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee by Friday or face elimination.
Yeager's Assembly Judiciary Committee is the sponsor of the death-penalty bill, AB395. Its members spent two committee meetings and a work session debating it before finally passing it on a party-line vote, 26-16, last month.
Hours of testimony has been given to both sides of the issue. The death-penalty bill has also received considerable attention from reporters covering the Legislature and on social media, especially Twitter.
Yeager told a abbreviated version of Snedeker's testimony. Video of her complete testimony can be found on the Legislature's website.
Snedeker told the committee she was only 8 years old when the state of Texas executed her father for murder 22 years ago.
She had gone to the Texas prison to see her Dad for the first time in her life. And her last.
"Before then, I didn't even know he existed," she told the committee.
She recalled no guards smiled at prison. One took her hand and led her to a plexiglass window. Her father was on the other side of the plexiglass. They had just 30 minutes for their first-and-only talk -- through the plexiglass, on a telephone receiver, on the wall.
"He said anything he could think of at the time," Snedeker said. "Stay in school. Get a graduate degree. Respect your Mom. Respect yourself. Don't act on impulse and don't do drugs, especially the kind he used when he took another man's life.
"When the 30 minutes was over, I looked over at my dad and he was crying," Snedeker said. "I wanted to hug him so bad. To let him know I was OK, that I forgave him for abandoning me, now after we finally got to have our daddy-daughter moment.
"I asked the armed guard escorting me if I could give my Dad a hug for once in my life before we parted for good," she said.
"He said no."
A few weeks later, her father was executed by lethal injection.
"From a window where witnesses could watch, my grandma held up my stuffed Tweety-bird toy from when I was a baby on the glass. It was the last thing my dad saw before he died."
Yeager praised Snedeker's courage to telling her story to the committee.
But the real pain of the execution was only beginning for Snedeker.
"I'm here today to show you all that when you execute someone, you are not punishing them, you are punishing the families and children like me who are left to suffer and pick up the pieces of our shattered lives," she said.
"No one from the state (of Texas) ever reached out to me to see how the execution affected me or paid for the years and years of therapy that followed."
A letter from then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush was shocking, she testified.
"The only communication I ever received from the state was a letter from then Gov. George W. Bush, denying my appeal to stop my Dad's execution, adding that my Dad was going to burn in hell.
"If any of you are shocked that the future president of the United States spoke that way to a little girl, don't be," she testified. "That is the message sent from a system that exterminates human beings that you deem unworthy of redemption."
The committee listened. Maybe a few tears trickled down their cheek.
Yeager, however, said lawmakers should not make decisions on emotions.
"You have to sort of step back from that emotion and rule as an elected official and try to make the best policy decision," he said.
Yeager said Snedeker's testimony was memorable because it gave lawmakers a perspective they had yet to consider -- that of a death penalty survivor.
"She didn't try to belittle whatever it was that he (her father) did," he said. "But she talked about how impacted her as a little girl, growing up, knowing the trauma that was associated with that.
"Her point was, nobody ever thinks about us and we sort of have these ongoing issues of this as well," Yeager said. "It was a voice that we really hadn't heard before."
As the bill reaches a make-or-break deadline, Yeager recalled the emotions of the people who testified -- on all sides -- involved in the legislative process of the extremely serious death-penalty bill.
"I have always been consistent to say that there are spaces for a difference of opinion on this issue and it is an issue that is very personal to people and I respect that," he said. "But the arguments, they have not been personally persuasive to me. I still remain adamantly opposed to the death penalty. I certainly understand how folks could want to keep it, especially victims' family members. Certainly, you have to have space for that."
Now, AB395 is out of his hands and out of the Lower House.
As of this writing, the Senate Judiciary committee has yet to schedule a hearing on AB395, despite pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. A similar measure to abolish the death penalty failed in the 2017 session.
"It is really difficult on both sides of the issue," Yeager said of the death-penalty bill. "It is heartbreaking in any context."