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Nevada murderer on death row 34 years seeks life in prison

May 11, 2019
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Tracy Petrocelli, who has been on death row in Nevada for 34 years, appears in Washoe County District Court in Reno during a hearing to challenge his death sentence, Friday, May 10, 2019. Petrocelli was convicted in the 1982 killing of a Reno car salesman, months after killing his girlfriend in Seattle. (Jason Bean/The Reno Gazette-Journal via AP)

RENO, Nev. (AP) — Lawyers for a three-time murderer who has been on Nevada’s death row for 34 years are asking a jury to spare his life and order him to spend the rest of his years in prison after a federal appeals court overturned his original death sentence.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld 67-year-old Tracy Petrocelli’s conviction two years ago in the 1982 killing of a Reno car salesman, months after Petrocelli killed his girlfriend in Seattle.

But it ordered a new sentencing hearing that resumed in Reno on Friday after finding his rights were violated during the penalty phase of his trial.

“You will be tasked with a responsibility of deciding whether or not a man lives or dies,” public defender Jaclyn Millsap told the jury during opening arguments.

“I will ask you not to sign this man’s death sentence. This 67-year-old man is not the same man that he was 30 years ago at the time he committed these crimes,” she said Thursday.

Washoe District Judge Egan Walker said the new jury in Reno can choose between three sentences — death, life in prison with or without the possibility of a parole.

But Millsap said they won’t ask for the possibility of parole. “We would not stand before you and ask to sentence him to a sentence that would allow him to ever be freed,” she said.

Prosecutors want the jury to reorder Petrocelli’s execution after the San Francisco-based appellate court ruled that he should have been read his Miranda rights when he thought he was speaking confidentially to a psychiatrist who later testified for the prosecution at his 1982 trial.

It said the jury that sentenced him to death may have been unjustly influenced by testimony that Petrocelli was a dangerous, incurable psychopath. That testimony won’t be allowed at the resentencing hearing expected to last three weeks.

Petrocelli was arrested in Las Vegas in 1982 for the shooting of James Wilson during a test drive north of Reno near Pyramid Lake in March 1982.

Petrocelli said the shooting was accidental. He said he was driving a Volkswagen pickup with Wilson when the two argued about the sale price and Wilson twice tried to grab the steering wheel. Petrocelli said he then pulled out a gun and as they struggled, the gun went off. He said he didn’t know what to do, so he buried Wilson’s body near the lake.

Petrocelli also was convicted of kidnapping and fatally shooting girlfriend Melanie Barker in the Seattle area in late 1981, and in 2008 he was convicted of murder in the 1981 shooting of 30-year-old Dennis Gibson, whose body was found near Barstow, California.

Washoe County Deputy District Attorney Luke Prengaman said the other murders aren’t part of the resentencing but serve as aggravating factors in Nevada.

“There are no mitigating circumstances that could be presented to you in this case that outweigh those,” Prengaman told the jury, adding that Wilson’s family has been forever hurt by his death.

“Not only was there an impact on that family when the murder occurred, but there has continued to this day to be an impact on that family — an unfortunate legacy — because of what the defendant did,” he said.

Millsap countered that Petrocelli is much older now, suffers from serious health ailments and has been a model prisoner for 37 years. She said he was “much younger, more reckless and more careless” when convicted.

“You’ll come to learn he’s capable of change, that he’s conducted himself appropriately and has accomplished compliance and good behavior,” she said.

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