Colorado budget woes may force an end to death penalty

Arguments for maintaining the death penalty in Colorado are losing power. As state Sen. John Morse said in speaking about the legalization of marijuana two weeks ago, the intense budget crisis in Colorado will force lawmakers to rethink positions “from top to bottom.” And it’s clear that capital punishment is a bad investment: it’s expensive and it doesn’t deter crime.

Prof. Michael Radelet
Prof. Michael Radelet

In May, a law introduced by Colorado House Majority Leader Paul Weissmann, D-Louisville, lost in the state senate by one vote. Weissmann estimated that abolishing the death penalty would spare the state budget $2 million a year and local budgets roughly $2.5 million per year. The Boulder Daily Camera talked to CU sociology professor Michael Radelet, a longtime death penalty researcher. Radelet says the choice is clear and that with leadership, particularly from Gov. Ritter, Colorado might well abolish the death penalty this year.

Excerpt of the Camera interview:

Given the 17-18 vote in the Senate on Weissmann’s bill this year, do you see this close call as a sign of progress or stagnation?

Unquestionably, it’s a sign of progress against the death penalty. Everybody was stunned — everybody meaning all students of the death penalty throughout the United States were stunned that the vote in Colorado was so close. Had there been any leadership by Gov. (Bill) Ritter, it easily would have passed in the Senate. So, the closeness of the vote is amazing, given that a few years ago nobody would have predicted that Colorado would come that close to abolishing the death penalty.

Republican Attorney General John Suthers and district attorneys say the death penalty is key to discouraging the worst crimes, especially as a last deterrent for inmates sentenced to life in prison. Have you found this to be true in your research?

Anybody who says the death penalty is a stronger deterrent than life without parole is simply wrong. It’s not a question of opinion. It’s a question of looking at the research that’s been conducted on this over the last 75 years. This past summer, a student and I did a survey of the top 75 criminologists in the U.S. and more than 90 percent of them took the position that the death penalty is not, never has been, and can never be a stronger deterrent than life without parole.

Why in the past four decades has only one person — rapist-murderer Gary Lee Davis, who died by injection in 1997 — been executed?

It’s not because Colorado hasn’t tried. There are now 124 times when they have sought the death penalty since 1970. With one execution, many are called, but few are chosen. Part of the reason is that they overreach. They seek death in cases where any neutral observer looking at it from the beginning would say, “this is not a death penalty case,” and jurors are very unlikely to come back with death.

But it allows prosecutors to look tough and it also allows prosecutors to justify payrolls. In some cases, if they seek death after a prison murder, they can bill the Department of Corrections for all the lawyer time and therefore the local prosecutor makes money. The reason the death penalty is sought so often is politics. The reason it’s imposed so infrequently is because most citizens now recognize that whatever can be gained from the death penalty can also be gained by life without parole at a much cheaper cost.

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I think the budget problem allows us to talk about things that during good times we never talk about,

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