Since Illinois Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions in his state in 2000 after a dozen wrongful convictions in capital cases came to light, debate on the death penalty has been revived, with moratoriums or abolition being enacted in some states. In Nevada, Nancy Hart of the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty has spent decades campaigning and lobbying. The Coalition's website is at www.NVCADP.org. (Italics here indicate the tone of voice.)
Why did you get involved with this issue?
I got involved because it was a human rights issue for me. I had been involved in Amnesty International—still am—and learned about it at a conference. And the more I learned about it, the more I thought, “Good heavens, of course I'm against the death penalty.” It started as a human rights issue for me, but it became just a public policy issue that it seemed to me to be something that we could make progress on if we did enough education and if enough people knew about it, knew more about it, that maybe we could see some change.
Nevada doesn’t seem like fertile ground for this kind of an effort.
Well, you know, there’s a national trend happening right now that’s kind of a result of a lot of things. It’s the result, I think, of a growing awareness around states that are conservative like Nevada, or not necessarily conservative but have a view that the death penalty is a practical option. And even in those states, there’s been concern about the cost, there’s been concern about the execution or the conviction of innocent people, and there’s always been concerns about discrimination, racial discrimination, economic discrimination. And I think that national momentum—which has also led to some repeal in some states—has created a little buzz around it, and whenever there’s a little buzz, I think more people pay attention. And I truthfully think there’s a lot of people who don’t know much and don’t think much about the death penalty and they may have a knee-jerk reaction. But we’re in a time even in Nevada when I think more people, if they’re given the right information, they are concerned about what we spend on it, or whether it’s actually effective at resolving the crime problem.
You’ve been doing this for how long?
I have been working against the death penalty for 30 years.
As you’ve gotten more organized, have you been able to find sources of financial support in this area?
Not in this area. There have been some national foundations that have funded the death penalty work in the last decade that’s really been phenomenal across the country, and we did tap into some of that funding. As foundation funding goes, it comes up and down and right now there isn’t a whole lot of it. We operate on very slim resources.
Tell me about the organization.
The Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty … started meeting in 2001, and that was after one of Joe Neal’s abolition bills, and then there was a study. So we’ve been around but we’ve never had regular staff here. … And it’s always difficult to make the progress you want to make when you have a volunteer base.
You’ve been at several Nevada legislatures. When you raise this issue, what is the typical reaction?
Actually, in virtually all the conversations I have with lawmakers, they may have a strong conviction, personal position, initially. But they’re all really interested in learning more about the issue. And everyone is interested in making sure that it is appropriate and fair, even if they support the concept of the death penalty. So when we have promoted reforms, like getting rid of three-judge panel sentencing, there's been a lot of support for those types of reforms. The question of actual abolition, you know, it still divides. People either have an opinion one way or the other. But I do think there's concern about cost, and I do think there's concern about effectiveness. And part of the effectiveness issue is people's concern's that there are inmates on death row for years and years, and we're not actually executing anybody, and we're not getting the so-called justice that we're looking for. So those concerns about delays and costs aren't really about whether you believe in it or not, it's just you have to ask yourself whether it's working. That, in fact, has been one of the things that's happened in some of the states that have repealed, is that even conservatives have come to the point in their states where they look at it and realize it's just not working. You know, “I can say I believe in it, but we shouldn't have it because it's just ineffective.” And I think that that kind of reception is here in Nevada as well. We're a ways away from changing the death penalty in Nevada, but I think that conversation has started and there is a lot of interest in learning about it.