Colorado

Mixed signals frustrate foes of death penalty

By Vic Vela
Posted

Key Democratic lawmakers were frustrated with Gov. John Hickenlooper's guidance last year on a death penalty repeal bill and now feel that there was an opportunity lost, given that Hickenlooper's stance against capital punishment is now known.

At the same time, Democrats believe that the governor's "wrestling" on the issue was sincere and hold no resentment toward him for his limited involvement during the legislative process.

A sponsor of a bill that sought to end capital punishment in Colorado believes that the repeal effort would have passed had Hickenlooper come around on his anti-death penalty position sooner.

Hickenlooper — who had campaigned as a supporter of the death penalty in 2010 — acknowledged in an interview with KDVR-TV in August that his position has evolved over the years and that he now opposes capital punishment.

But Hickenlooper wasn't prepared to talk about those views in 2013, when Democrats were crafting a death penalty repeal bill.

Former Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, a sponsor of the bill, said her effort was a "challenge" because of Hickenlooper's lack of guidance on the legislation.

"It did it make it difficult for lawmakers who felt they may be vulnerable for repealing the death penalty; difficult to make to make a commitment to me knowing the bill could be vetoed," Levy said.

Levy said she had several conversations with Hickenlooper about the bill, but it wasn't until just before the legislation was up for a committee hearing that he suggested that might veto.

The bill died in the House Judiciary Committee on March 26, after the governor's feelings on the legislation became known.

"If (Hickenlooper) had arrived at his position earlier, we would have all benefited because we would have known what to do," said Rep. Daniel Kagan, D-Cherry Hills Village, the committee chairman who is against capital punishment. "He was wrestling, no question about it."

The repeal bill had Republican support as well, with Adams County Rep. Kevin Priola's name appearing on the legislation. Priola had hoped the bill would also spark a conversation on abortion, which he opposes.

"I wanted to have a discussion on state policy on the sanctity of life," he said. "The state of Colorado needs to have a discussion of being pro-life in every way."

With Priola's support and the support of religious groups, Levy said she was optimistic about the bill's chances of clearing the General Assembly, had Hickenlooper provided his support.

"We really did have a unique opportunity," she said.

CNN interview surfaces

While there was frustration with Hickenlooper over his role in the death penalty repeal bill, Democrats say they respected the governor's decision-making process.

"While I really wanted a firm yes or no, I understand completely why he was not able to do that for us," Levy said. "And I think the reason he couldn't is really what he's been saying publicly all along and that he's really been wrestling with this issue."

The death penalty issue made headlines again recently after a newly surfaced CNN interview from November became public. In the interview, Hickenlooper told a reporter that clemency for death row inmate Nathan Dunlap could still be on the table. Hickenlooper granted Dunlap an indefinite reprieve in May 2013.

Hickenlooper's campaign said that in the CNN interview, the governor was responding to a hypothetical question, and that Dunlap — who killed four people at an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese's restaurant in 1993 — will die in prison.

Even though Kagan would have liked to have seen Hickenlooper support last year's death penalty repeal, he was OK with how the governor handled the Dunlap situation.

"I respect the position he arrived at in the end," Kagan said. "He said he's not going to decide for an entire state on this issue, instead he said, 'I cannot, in good conscience, be the one to sign the death warrant.'"

But Republicans have blasted Hickenlooper over his evolution on the death penalty and for his "indecision and weak leadership" on the issue.

"On my watch, justice will carried out, the laws of the state of Colorado will be enforced and I will never turn my back on the victims," said former Congressman Bob Beauprez, who is running against Hickenlooper in this fall's gubernatorial election.

Rep. Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, a former House minority leader, said the death penalty is just one example where Hickenlooper has been hesitant to "weigh in on legislation unless he absolutely has to."

"He never lets you know what his position is," Waller said. "It's like he lets the issue lead him."

But Democrats, for all their frustrations, say Hickenlooper's "thoughtful" approach to painful, moral decisions on issues like the death penalty is better than the alternative.

"When somebody is so completely glib and saying, 'Oh, I would put someone to death if I were in charge,' that reflects to me a lack of depth, a lack of appreciation of the enormity of the decision you're making," Levy said.

Kagan agrees.

"I will never knock a man who follows his conscience before taking a politically expedient position," he said.