After years of coming up short, advocates of repealing the death penalty may finally cross the finish line this year with newfound support from two Republican senators.
“From a philosophical perspective, I now don't think the state should have power over life and death,” said state Sen. Jack Tate, a Centennial Republican who was undecided on the issue last year.
Tate and Colorado Springs state Sen. Owen Hill, a Republican who also has voiced support for a repeal this year, may be enough to give Democrats the edge. The state Legislature has recently seen repeated attempts to overturn the death penalty: It failed in 2013, 2017 and 2019, despite Democrats controlling both the state House and Senate last year.
Democrats haven't been united on the issue. Two of the three people on death row in Colorado — Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray — were sentenced to die in connection with the 2005 murder of the son of state Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat. Her son was a witness in another murder case involving Owens.
The experience places Fields firmly in opposition to repealing the death penalty, and last year, at least a few other Democrats hadn't publicly committed to the repeal.
In the state House, Rep. Tom Sullivan, whose son was killed in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting, argues there are certain cases where capital punishment is warranted.
“There's no question in my mind that the man that murdered my son and 11 others — 58 others shot, traumatized an entire community — there's no question in my mind that he should be put to death,” said Sullivan, a Democrat from Centennial.
The jury in theater shooter James Holmes' case did not unanimously agree on the death penalty, so Holmes was not sentenced to death.
Eighteenth Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler argues that the death penalty is a useful negotiation tool, pointing to the case of Chris Watts, a Frederick man who pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty after killing his wife and daughters in 2018.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado calls the death penalty “an expensive, ineffective, and unjust government program that risks making irreversible mistakes by executing innocent people, delays justice for victims' families, and wastes millions of dollars that could be better used on programs that actually save lives and increase public safety,” its website says. At least 166 people have been exonerated from death rows across the country, an ACLU Colorado fact sheet says.
The organization also argues that in Colorado, racial minorities are disproportionately likely to face the death penalty.
Sullivan, whose House district includes east and central Centennial, Foxfield, and nearby areas, said he may be willing to tackle some aspects of the death penalty, such as the uncertainty in whether it deters crime and that it is pursued more often in wealthier judicial districts.
“But in an instance that I was personally involved in and I see more people personally involved with, as I've said, I'm not going to be the one to tell those other families that they're not going to be able to pursue the justice they want,” Sullivan said.
Along with Owens and Ray, the only other inmate on death row in Colorado is Nathan Dunlap, convicted of murdering four people in 1993 shooting at an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese. All three are black men who attended Overland High School in Aurora at different times.
Fields, whose Senate district sits near Overland, said race is a coincidence in those cases.
“I think they just happened to be black,” Fields said. Dunlap “is black, but he killed (people) that should be alive today.”
“I don't think it's about color — I think it's about murder,” Fields added.
Brauchler, whose judicial district includes Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties, said there recently have been Colorado death row inmates of other races and some death penalty sentences were overturned by a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case called Ring v. Arizona, which affected how states apply the death penalty.
On the issue of whether the death penalty deters criminals, the National Research Council reviewed research and found no credible evidence that the death penalty deters crime any more than long prison sentences, ACLU Colorado cites. The National Research Council is an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, a nonprofit that studies national and world issues.
The 2012 report “concludes that research to date on the effect of capital punishment on homicide rates is not useful in determining whether the death penalty increases, decreases, or has no effect on these rates,” the National Academy's website says.
Research has found “you can't draw conclusions one way or the other,” Brauchler said.
The district attorney argued that for inmates with life sentences for murder, taking away the death penalty would remove the potential for further punishment if they kill a prison guard or another inmate.
“It will essentially say once you do your first murder, the rest are free,” Brauchler said.
This year's proposal, Senate Bill 20-100, would repeal the death penalty for offenses charged on or after July 1, 2020.
Gov. Jared Polis has said that if the Legislature repeals the death penalty, he'd consider commuting Colorado's death row inmates' sentences. A vote for the repeal bill is a vote for that outcome, Brauchler said.
The last time Colorado executed an inmate was in 1997, and the most recent time before that was in 1967.
Fields, Sullivan and Brauchler all prefer the question of repealing the death penalty to be answered by voters in a statewide ballot question.
Tate said he understands that preference but that he has a “traditional view of the role of the lawmaker.”
“I notice that we don't send every tough decision at the Capitol to a vote of the people,” Tate said.
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