What we talk about when we talk about the death penalty
Colorado Independent panelists discuss the racial, moral and political implications of capital punishment
When is civil society justified to take a life — if ever?
That was the topic of conversation last night as four panelists who have personal and professional experience with the death penalty fielded questions about the issue. The forum was part of a monthly series of public discussions hosted by The Colorado Independent..
Bob Autobee, father of slain corrections officer Eric Autobee, came to the panel after a day in court about the murder. Inmate Edward Montour faces a possible death sentence in the case that has meandered through the legal system for 12 years.
“Most people don’t have a clue what the death penalty involves. It’s this macho crap – ‘Let’s kill him, let’s kill him,’” Autobee said. “That’s the first knee-jerk reaction. By doing that, we become them; we become the murderers.”
Autobee’s position on the death penalty has changed over the years. At first, he said he wanted to kill Montour with his own hands. Over the past year and a half, his religious faith has tempered his instinct. He met with Montour in a two-hour conversation in December, and forgave him.
State Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, got into politics after years of experience advocating for crime victims’ families. That work came naturally to Fields, whose son, Javad Marshall-Fields, and his fiancée, Vivian Wolfe, were gunned down in their car by Sir Mario Owens in 2005 to prevent Marshall-Fields from testifying in a murder case against Robert Ray. Owens and Ray are two of three convicts on Colorado’s death row.
“This subject is not an easy subject to talk about. It’s a very dark topic,” Fields told the audience. “It wasn’t an easy decision to pursue [a death penalty sentence]. I’m a daughter. I’m a mother, a grandmother. I’m a woman of faith. Once we all decided that we had consensus about moving forward with the death penalty, once we decided we were all in, we’re all in. I got in with my eyes wide open.”
Fields sees capital punishment strictly as a legal, not a political issue.
“I agree with the jury because I support the criminal justice system. And the jury came back with that verdict,” she said.
Dave Young, the newly elected district attorney in Adams and Broomfield counties, said politics has nothing to do with capital punishment.
He outlined a legal vetting process meant to target only those who commit the most heinous crimes. In cases when he has sought the death penalty, he has conferred with victims’ families and considered a broad spectrum of circumstances, including age and mental illness.
Young took umbrage with district attorneys – who are elected — being deemed politicians. The perception that prosecutors have used the death penalty as a political stepping-stone is misguided, he said.
“There is evil out there, I’ve seen it,” he said. “There are people who kill for fun, and will do it again because it’s fun. We need to treat those people differently.”
Fort Collins defense attorney Derek Samuelson said, in his experience, prosecutors’ decisions to seek death are highly political.
“You have these terrible crimes, and there is an incredible amount of pressure brought by the public to solve these crimes and deal with them harshly,” he said. “By the time you get to court, the sides are so dug in it almost becomes a knife fight in the dark.”
Samuelson noted that there are flaws in the way capital punishment is sought in Colorado. He defended inmate David Bueno in a prison murder case in which key evidence was withheld by the prosecution.
Samuelson said it’s not by coincidence that the vast majority of death penalty prosecutions in Colorado come of out of the 18th District Attorney’s office, which includes Arapahoe and Douglas Counties. Carol Chambers, the former longtime DA there, was widely criticized for seeking death in too many cases and for cutting corners to win at trial. Her successor, George Brauchler, is a staunch death penalty proponent who is carrying on Chambers’ pattern of dogged death penalty prosecutions.
All three of Colorado’s death row convicts are black, went to the same high school and were prosecuted in the 18th District.
“I think at a certain point statistics speak for themselves,” Samuelson said, noting that 21 of the last 23 capital cases were sought against men of color. “I don’t think it’s open to any serious dispute that there is a huge racial disparity when it comes to the application of the death penalty, not just in the nation, but in Colorado.”
One member in the audience at the First Unitarian Society of Denver asked whether race plays a role in cases for which capital punishment is considered. Fields – who is African American — and Young disagreed, saying race doesn’t play a role in capital punishment.
The Independent will post a videotape of the panel discussion on Monday.
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