LAS VEGAS — A federal appeals court has overturned the death sentence of a 65-year-old Nevada state prison inmate convicted of killing a Reno used car salesman in March 1982, just months after killing his girlfriend in Seattle.
Tracy Petrocelli’s murder and robbery convictions for shooting James Wilson were upheld by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
However, the judges said in the Wednesday ruling that Petrocelli’s constitutional rights were violated during penalty proceedings because his attorney wasn’t present when he was interviewed by a psychiatrist who later testified for the prosecution.
Petrocelli’s attorney, A. Richard Ellis of Mill Valley, California, said Thursday he would let the court opinion speak for itself.
Aides to Washoe County District Attorney Christopher Hicks and Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt said a decision had not been made whether prosecutors will retry Petrocelli’s penalty phase in state court or seek a lesser sentence such as life in prison without parole.
“We are in the process of further reviewing the 9th Circuit’s decision,” Laxalt spokeswoman Monica Moazez said.
Petrocelli’s name is invoked regularly in criminal courts in Nevada, after the state Supreme Court ruled in an appeal of his murder conviction that prosecutors must convince a judge during a pretrial hearing that evidence about so-called “prior bad acts” can be introduced to a jury.
Prosecutors in Nevada told the Washoe County District Court jury that Petrocelli pleaded guilty in May 1981 in Washington state to kidnaping his 18-year-old girlfriend, Melanie Barker. He had not yet been convicted of shooting Barker dead outside a Seattle restaurant where she worked in October 1981.
Five months later, Wilson, 63, was shot dead during a vehicle test-drive. His body was found buried in a makeshift grave near Pyramid Lake north of Reno. Petrocelli, who also used the name John Maida, was arrested in Las Vegas in April 1982.
After nearly 35 years behind bars, Petrocelli has become one of Nevada’s longest-serving death-row inmates.
The last execution in the state was in 2006.