In what Rep. Paul Weissmann described as a “convergence of ideas,” his bill to abolish the death penalty in Colorado and divert the money to a cold case unit to solve an estimated 1,200 unsolved murders ultimately sailed out of a Wednesday legislative committee hearing.
The 7-4 vote followed four hours of emotional testimony from the families and friends of murder victims, many of whom displayed photographs and described heinous crimes that had been committed – and noted that the killers have never been apprehended. Many underscored how the murder investigations had, over time, taken a back seat to other, higher-profile cases. Despite longtime pleas by victims’ families, Colorado does not have a cold case unit to investigate unsolved murders and other crimes. Weissmann’s proposal, HB 1094, would divert $650,000 a year – money generated from abolishing the death penalty – to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to establish a cold case unit.
An additional 40 more unsolved murders are added to the roster every year. By contrast, Gary Lee Davis was the last person executed in Colorado, in 1998 – and before him no one had been put to death since 1967. Two other convicted murderers are currently on death row. Weissmann, a Democrat from Louisville, estimated that the state could have saved $40.5 million in death penalty-related costs in the nine years since Davis was executed.
“We don’t use the death penalty, so why do we have it?” Weissmann asked.
The fiscal note was far from the only issue raised during the afternoon – which was filled with debate over the philosophical and moral issues surrounding the death penalty. Colorado’s Public Defender, Doug Wilson, testified in favor of the bill, joining Richard Randall from the Libertarian Party of Colorado. Also in support were Father Bill Carmody, a Catholic priest from Colorado Springs; the executive director of the ACLU of Colorado; and a representative from Colorado’s Quaker community.
“Our own system is providing vengeance, not justice,” Randall said.
Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center and Michael Radelet a sociology professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and one of the nation’s most-cited experts on the death penalty, also spoke in favor.
Dieter testified that 25 years worth of studies have found that pursuing the death penalty is, “unquestionably, more expensive at every stage,” than putting someone behind bars for life.
But Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey and Adams County District Attorney Don Quick spoke in opposition, underscoring their beliefs that capital punishment serves an important deterrent.
In addition, Morrissey argued that Denver already has a “nationally recognized” cold case unit for solving crimes. Denver has about one-fourth of the homicides committed in Colorado, and does not use the resources from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, Morrissey said. Under questioning from committee members, the DA said his office has not sought the death penalty in the two years he’s been in office.
“I’m all for a bill to fund [a] cold case [unit], but not for putting the death penalty at risk,” he said.
Public Defender Wilson underscored the “fascinating” aspect of his own testimony – “I am in total agreement with the victims today.”
“This should not be a turf battle between DAs and the rest of the state,” Wilson said. “Getting a death penalty verdict is like getting struck by lightning.”
Weissmann noted that legislative bodies in other states are debating the death penalty. And the Nebraska Judiciary Committee recently voted, unanimously, to abolish capital punishment in that state.
Eventually Republican Debbie Stafford joined Democrats Terrence Carroll, Morgan Carroll, Claire Levy, Andy Kerr, Mike Cerbo and Rosemary Marshall in approving the bill. Republicans Bob Gardner, Amy Stephens, Steve King and Ellen Roberts voted no.
Describing it as “one of the most important votes we will make,” Stafford indicated that, after seven years in the legislature, it is time to “do some things differently than we’ve been doing.”
“We have taken a position of being tough on crime, without coming in on the backside. It’s time we shake up our system,” Stafford said.
However, Stephens indicated she would prefer to send any questions over abolishing the death penalty to the people for a vote.
The bill now heads to the appropriations committee. Despite Wednesday’s vote, Weissmann said that he realizes that it will likely be a hard sell, and predicted a 40-60 chance that it would actually be approved by the General Assembly. “Politically it will make people nervous,” he said.
Cara DeGette is a longtime Colorado journalist and a senior fellow at Colorado Confidential. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.