Capital appeal pulled off court agenda

The appeal of a death sentence by a Las Vegas man was pulled off the Nevada Supreme Court calendar Tuesday because of the U.S. Supreme Court decision barring death sentences by judicial panels.

The U.S. court ruled Monday that juries, not judges, must determine whether a convicted killer is executed.

The 7-2 ruling invalidates the sentencing laws in at least five states and raises serious issues with existing laws in other states, including Nevada.

Donte Johnson, 24, was sentenced to die for murdering four men in August 1998. He and two other men went to a Las Vegas home to steal $10,000 cash and drugs. They got only $240, a pager, video game machine and a VCR. But before they left, Johnson executed four young men by shooting them in the head.

Johnson was sentenced to die by a three-judge panel.

Deputy Attorney General Gerald Gardner said the justices removed the appeal from Wednesday's Supreme Court agenda.

"It's my understanding the Supreme Court postponed the case to give both sides time to see what effect the ruling has on this case," he said.

Death penalty opponents say 17 of Nevada's 85 death row inmates may get their sentences changed because of the ruling.

Nationwide, the ruling could affect sentences for nearly 800 inmates in states where judges, not juries, imposed the death sentence. Many will be entitled to resentencing.

Under Nevada law, the jury sets the sentence in a death case. But if the jury can't agree on a sentence, the decision is made by a three-judge panel. A three-judge panel also imposes the sentence in cases where the inmate pleads guilty or elects a bench trial instead of a jury trial.

In Nevada, the three-judge panel has ordered death 80 percent of the time.

Deputy federal public defender Michael Pescetta said he believes the U.S. Supreme Court decision invalidates all forms of judicial sentencing. But, he said, how it affects Nevada's law will have to be decided in court.


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