A jury began deliberating Thursday whether to reorder the execution of a three-time murderer who’s been on Nevada’s death row for 34 years.
Defense lawyers told the jury in Reno that 67-year-old Tracy Petrocelli should spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole after a U.S. appeals court ordered resentencing based on violations of his rights during the penalty phase of his original trial.
They said he’s a changed man in failing health who has become more remorseful in the three decades since he was convicted of murdering the owner of a Reno car dealership in 1982 just months after killing his girlfriend in Seattle.
“The appropriate penalty for Mr. Petrocelli is that he die in prison. Why is that not enough?” public defender Jay Slocum asked the jury during closing arguments.
Petrocelli also was convicted of murdering a man whose body was found in 1981 near Barstow, California.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Luke Prengaman said Petrocelli may be older now, but he’s the same evil man who fatally shot three people in the head.
“Is he less responsible for killing Mr. Wilson because time has passed?” Prengaman asked the jury.
“He deserved the death penalty when he committed that third murder, and he deserves it today. There’s not a shelf life on that responsibility,” he said. “Send the message that if you commit the most heinous crimes, you get the highest penalty.”
The case went to the jury in Reno shortly before noon. Washoe District Judge Egan Walker said he would allow the jurors to deliberate into the evening if necessary, then return Friday if they failed to reach a verdict.
Petrocelli has filed multiple appeals since he was sent to death row in 1985. Nevada has not executed anyone since 2006.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco upheld the murder conviction in the fatal shooting of James Wilson in Reno in 1982. But the court ruled two years ago that Petrocelli should have had his lawyer present and been read his Miranda rights when a psychiatrist who testified for the prosecution at that trial interviewed him in jail.
Petrocelli told the jury on Wednesday that he took responsibility for the killings of Wilson, as well as his 18-year-old girlfriend Melanie Barker in Seattle and 30-year-old Dennis Gibson, whose body was found near Barstow, California.
“For 37 years, I have cried, not for me, but for my victims and their families. I have caused so much pain and suffering, and for that I feel tortured every day,” Petrocelli said. “I’m so sorry. I can’t undo the horrible sorrow I’ve caused everyone.”
“I have felt the pain of my actions for 13,555 days and will continue to do so until my last breath,” he said.
Prengaman dismissed Petrocelli’s comments, calling him a “con man.”
“That’s a criminal talking, that’s not a repentant man,” he said during Thursday’s closing arguments. “It’s not for the victims in this case. It’s for himself. He wishes he wasn’t in prison.”
Prengaman said if Petrocelli is taken off death row and given life without parole, he’ll likely be transferred to a minimum security prison where inmates get more privileges.
“He does not deserve more privileges,” he said.
Public defender Jaclyn Millsap said Petrocelli has a history of good behavior during his 37 years at the Ely State Prison near the Utah line.
“Our sentence contemplates the heinousness of Tracy’s actions, but it also contemplates where we are today,” she said. “People are capable of change, and Tracy is such a person … Do not sentence him to die.”