Las Vegas Sun

October 31, 2014

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Q&A: Nancy Hart

They gathered in small knots outside the prison in Carson City on Monday, braving blustery winds and speeding cars, clutching hand-lettered signs urging an end to capital punishment. At a few minutes past 7 p.m., Nancy Hart, president of the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty, made her way to the dirt shoulder of the road to share the news with two dozen fellow activists.

William Castillo would not die that night.

Although a strong opponent of the death penalty, Hart does not hew to a conventional line. She has actively worked on behalf of victims of violence. And she believes that when the state allows a convicted murderer to abandon his legal appeals and choose execution - as 35-year-old Castillo has - courts give too much power to the condemned and allow "the worst criminals the most choices."

Castillo was convicted in 1996 of tire-iron beating death of retired Las Vegas schoolteacher Isabelle Berndt, 86. He abandoned his appeals and his execution was set for Monday. The Nevada Supreme Court halted the execution after an emergency hearing requested by the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada and 90 minutes before Castillo was scheduled to die by lethal injection.

Later this year, the court will consider the ACLU's arguments, including that one of the drugs in the deadly cocktail masks whether the prisoner is experiencing pain during the execution. The U.S. Supreme Court will also hear a case involving lethal injection, including whether it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

Meanwhile, Hart continues to fight to make the temporary stay permanent. A former state deputy attorney general, she volunteers with the Nevada Network Against Domestic Violence. She spoke with the Sun on Monday in Carson City.

You could certainly call it state-assisted suicide. The other label might be prisoner-assisted homicide. When prisoners give up their appeals, they're helping the state to end their lives. Suicide is illegal in Nevada. It's interesting that the state will willingly facilitate William Castillo's desire to give up, but it's not allowed that we put to death someone who is terminally ill. No one has the right to ask someone to kill him or her. It's ironic to me that we grant that privilege, if you can call it that, to these so-called worst criminals. We give the worst criminals the most choices.

There are typically fewer than 40 people who join your organization's vigils outside the prison when executions are carried out. Do you believe your views are in the minority?

The fact that the executions take place in Carson City makes it more difficult for people to participate. Certainly, people in Las Vegas are not in a position to be at a vigil outside the prison. Even Reno is a 30-45 minute drive. Nevada isn't Texas, which executes people quite frequently. We have a higher execution rate per capita, but it doesn't happen enough that people are really outraged. In the last decade we execute d on average every 1.5 to 2 years. That's not an extreme rate when we compare ourselves to Texas or Alabama.

Why should Nevadans care whether criminals are executed?

This is something that is done in our name. People believe it's a punishment reserved for the worst criminals. The truth is there are plenty of terrible people out there who don't get the death penalty. There is a lot of unfairness in how it is applied. There's a perception out there that because the last 11 people executed were volunteers, there isn't an urgent need for people to get involved. "This guy doesn't even care, so why should I get out of my seat and go to a vigil?"

ACLU attorney Lee Rowland warned that if the execution went forward, Nevada could wind up as the last state to use lethal injection before the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed it. Do you believe Nevadans worry much about the state's legal legacies?

There are newcomers who don't know much about Nevada's history and traditions. They're coming here for employment, low taxes, open spaces, and not because they have a particular connection to what Nevada stands for. But Nevada has a very strong legacy of personal freedom and limits to governmental power. What kind of power has the government been given when they can take someone's life? Nevada's history is filled with every reason to have serious doubts about capital punishment.

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