Your Donation Will Be Doubled. Support Today!

Las Vegas jury decides that a brutal murder does not justify the death penalty

John Valerio shows that violent offenders can change.

John Valerio admits that what he did in Las Vegas, decades ago, was monstrous. “There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not remorseful and that I don’t think of Ms. Blackwell and the things that happened in 1986,” he told a jury last month. “I was a menace. There’s no other way to put it. I made a lot of mistakes.”

Valerio stabbed a sex worker 45 times in 1986. The victim, 26-year-old Karen Blackwell, was found dead in the backseat of a car ten days later. She had been stabbed in the head, neck, chest, abdomen, and vaginal region, and for this heinous crime, Valerio was convicted of first degree murder in 1988. The jury that found him guilty concluded that the crime constituted “torture, depravity of mind, or mutilation” and sentenced him to die. But on August 28, 31 years after the horrific crime, Valerio learned that he wouldn’t be executed after all. Instead, he will spend the rest of his life behind bars without the possibility of parole.

The 52-year-old was resentenced by a new group of jurors in Clark County, after his original punishment was overturned by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2002. The appellate court ruled that “depravity of mind” was too ill-defined to be used in capital sentencing — a conclusion that was also drawn by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1980.

With a rare opportunity to drastically alter a death row prisoner’s fate, jurors decided last month that Valerio should be held accountable for his horrifying crime but does not deserve to be killed by the state. Chief Deputy District Attorney Marc DiGiacomo argued that Valerio is unchanged and that the death penalty is “right” and “just.” But speaking before the new jury, defense lawyer Tom Pitaro emphasized second chances. “The question is, do you fundamentally believe that the human spirit is redemptive, reforming and changing, and can be? Doesn’t mean it has to be, but can it be?” he said. “You are now sentencing John Valerio, 2017, at age 52. You’re not sentencing John Valerio, 21, 1986.” Valerio also stressed that he is a transformed man who “[makes] better choices today.” Jurors ultimately agreed that someone with a violent past can not only change for the better but also receive mercy — a concept championed by opponents of the death penalty and overlooked by many advocates of criminal justice reform.

The decision also reflects shifting national attitudes about capital punishment, specifically. The number of people executed each year has been dropping steadily since 1999, per data from the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), which tracks and analyzes capital punishment trends. Likewise, the number of new death sentences has plummeted since the late 1990s, reaching a record low of 31 in 2016. Last year was the sixth consecutive year that fewer than 100 people were sentenced to die. Steadily declining public support for the death penalty can be attributed to a greater understanding that the process is flawed and inhumane.

Valerio’s case shows that the power of redemption, and having to confront someone whose life rests in your hands, also play a role. During an interview with the LawNewz Network early this month, Pitaro explained that one juror firmly believed in the death penalty for people convicted of first-degree murder. But after seeing and hearing Valerio, her opinion changed. “The abstract and the real is what this case was about,” Pitaro said.