I-Team: Victim's Families Wait Decades for Death Penalties to be - 8 News NOW

Investigative Reporter Colleen McCarty and Photojournalist Kyle Zuelke

I-Team: Victim's Families Wait Decades for Death Penalties to be Carried Out

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Fernando Hernandez Fernando Hernandez

LAS VEGAS -- For all practical purposes, the death penalty in Nevada functions as a sentence of life without parole. In the last 30 years, the state has executed just one person who wasn't a volunteer.

Advocates on both sides of the issue agree the system doesn't work, but no one is more frustrated by it than the families of the victims.

Annie Griego says she knew her ex-son-in-law would one day kill her daughter. The question was never if, but when.

"Exactly a year to the day that she filed for divorce was when he went into the house and murdered her," she said.

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During the early morning hours of October 6, 1999, Fernando Hernandez entered the home of his ex-wife Donna. Blood at the crime suggested a struggle that ended on the stairs. Hernandez strangled and stabbed his ex-wife, and then mutilated her body with butter knife, all in front of their three-year-old daughter Ana.

"Where was God when all these things were happening and an innocent child watching all this -- watching someone take their mommy away," said Griego. "I don't go to church anymore."

The crime proved a test of faith for Griego in more ways than one. Eleven years have passed since a jury sentenced Hernandez to death, yet his date with an executioner remains unscheduled.

"Why do we have to wait so long? Why do they even give them the death sentence if you guys aren't going to follow through and get it over with? We're waiting," she said.

Like Hernandez, more than half of the 83 inmates currently on death row have been there a decade or longer. Two have surpassed the 30 year mark. They are delayed due to constitutionally-protected appeals of the process that put them there.

"I can sympathize with the victims," said Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Owens. "We have a death penalty. Is it being carried out the way it was intended? I don't think so. I don't see that we ever really reach an end where people are running out of their appellate rights."

Hernandez, for example, argued prosecutorial misconduct, insufficient evidence, and improper jury instructions among the many errors at his trial. His appeals have been rejected by the both the state and the U.S. Supreme Courts.

Yet Hernandez is currently engaged in his second round of post-conviction relief based on new legal theories.

"They shouldn't be allowed a second and third and fourth bite at the apple," said Owens. "You shouldn't have to review a case for 20 years to decide whether this was a valid imposition of the death penalty."

UNLV law professor Christopher Blakesley echoes the frustrations on both sides of the debate. Yet ultimately, he defends the existing process absent a workable alternative.

"You have to do it right because there are so many innocent people that we're finding out have been convicted and if you don't go through all this, they'll be executed," he said.

People like former Nevada death row inmate Ronnie Milligan, recently ordered released after 20 years. Evidence uncovered during his death penalty appeal suggests he may be innocent of murder.

It is an unlikely outcome for Hernandez. Hernandez does not dispute he did it or that his little girl, now 14, was witness to his crime. Instead, in court filings, Hernandez insists his rights have been violated. Griego wonders when someone will argue for hers.

"We're tired. We want the day to come and get it over with and let us go on with our lives," she said.

Even prison hasn't kept Hernandez away from Griego and her family. His most recent attempt to make contact, just last month, came in the form of a frivolous filing in family court. He wants his parental rights reinstated.

While that is not likely to happen, Griego says it's one more reason she can't rest until his sentence is carried out.

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