Colorado Death Penalty Repeal Testimony: ‘Flashbacks Still Haunt Me Today’

DENVER— Lawmakers considering a bill that would end capital punishment in Colorado heard 10 hours of emotional testimony here Tuesday, including statements by a former state prisons chief and a former district court judge. The men said the death penalty reaches far beyond murderers and victims, and described how their own involvement with executions has left them deeply scarred.

Allen Ault worked from 1977 to 1979 under Democratic Governor Dick Lamm and in the 1990s as director of the National Institute of Corrections Academy in Boulder. Ault said he was “blessed” not to have to carry out a death sentence in Colorado but noted that he oversaw five executions later, as commissioner of corrections in Georgia.

“Regardless of the act perpetrated by the condemned, it has an extremely detrimental impact to watch a man die because of your actions,” Ault wrote in a testimony read to the committee by Frank Thompson, a former warden of prisons in Arkansas and Oregon.

“After each execution, we made psychological help available to the ‘execution team.’ I made sure they received this. Eventually, I had to avail myself of the services, but the flashbacks still haunt me today.”

In his statement, Ault referred to evidence from the past 20 years showing that “98 percent of prison deaths have occurred in states with the death penalty.” He dismissed arguments by many law enforcers that capital punishment deters prison violence and that it keeps corrections officials safe.

Two Colorado corrections officers have been killed on duty since 2002.

On Tuesday night, while testimony was being heard at the Capitol, Colorado Corrections Chief Tom Clements was fatally shot on his doorstep. Authorities are hunting for the shooter, who reportedly staked out Clements’ house in Monument and escaped alone in a car left idling down the street. Investigators have reported no motive yet for the crime.

“I can assure you that corrections officials don’t need the death penalty for their safety. I can also assure you that there are many others like me who have suffered as a result of death penalty laws,” Ault wrote. “If the only purpose for the death penalty turns out to be for society’s revenge, then the old adage applies: ‘If revenge is sought, one needs to dig two graves, one for the condemned and one for the executioner, because it will destroy you.’

“Mine is a psychological grave. I wouldn’t wish my nightmares on anyone.”

Leland Anderson, a former longtime Jefferson County district court judge, also provided written testimony. He warned of the adverse ways the death penalty impacts jurors and judges. He wrote that he had decided two separate death penalty cases during his years on the bench. He ruled for the death penalty in one of the cases, a ruling he now sees as “a wounding experience.”

“[I’ve had] much time to reflect on the experience of judging another person’s life or death,” he wrote in testimony delivered by the Rev. Todd Everhart. Now retired, Anderson said the decision comes back to him “laden with moral ambiguity and self-doubt.”

“What I have finally come to realize is that I cannot support the death penalty because what I hold dearest in life is the promise of redemption.

“To some this will sound naive. To victims of violent crime, it may sound cowardly. I do not challenge their reality or skepticism. I understand their pain may be too deep to countenance concepts of forgiveness or redemption in the wake of gruesome tragedy. I would never suggest their feelings are unjustified or unwarranted.”

Anderson wrote that, in his “autumn years,” he wishes he could “amend the record of [his] moral choices.”

“If the endless cycle of retribution and violence is to be stopped in our society, it should begin with the law itself,” he wrote.

Sponsored by Reps. Jovan Melton of Aurora and Claire Levy of Boulder, both Democrats, House Bill 1264 would repeal capital punishment for crimes committed after July 1.

During the first five hours of testimony Tuesday, committee members heard pleas to end the costly, drawn-out practice of state executions. A long line of mothers, fathers, sisters, children, aunts, cousins evoked the memory of murder victims in whose names, they said, capital punishment should be repealed.

They argued abolition would bolster opportunities for mercy and redemption and would bring much-needed closure more swiftly to families tied to the cases. Capital cases take years – if not decades – longer than non-capital cases to wind their way through the system.

“Killing someone else will not bring my brother back to life,” said Arlis Kellar of Greeley, the sister of a murder victim.

“Violence begets violence,” added Patsy Bjork of Colorado Springs, whose mom was killed in 1986.

Also testifying on behalf of the bill were ethnic minority groups, including the NAACP and the Colorado Latino Forum. They cited statistics showing that ethnic minorities are vastly over-represented on death row. All three death row prisoners in Colorado are black, even though the state’s black population is 4.3 percent.

Several clergy members supported the bill on grounds that the death penalty lessens our humanity.

“Who are we to act in God’s stead?” asked Denver Rabbi Joe Black.

The League of Women Voters – a nonpartisan group that often stays neutral on policies not related directly to elections – called for repeal, yet chastised the Judiciary Committee for not giving enough notice to the public in advance of the hearing.

For the last four hours of testimony, a similarly long line of victims’ families, victims’ rights advocates, police, sheriffs and district attorneys argued that abolishing capital punishment would signal that the state was going soft on crime.

One of the most impassioned pleas to reject the bill came from Maisha Pollard, whose brother Javad was murdered in 2005. Calling HB 1264 “erroneous,” she told committee members “each life deserves an opportunity to receive a punishment that is worthy.”

Pollard’s mother, Aurora Democratic Rep. Rhonda Fields, this week introduced a bill that would ask voters at the ballot box to decide whether to repeal the death penalty. A hearing on that bill is scheduled today.

After nearly ten hours of testimony, Judiciary Committee members agreed to delay a vote.

They woke this morning, like the rest of Colorado and the nation, to news about Clements – the state official tied perhaps most directly to the death penalty.

Clements – who quietly shared his reservations about the death penalty — hadn’t taken a public stance on HB 1264 or spoken for the record about what Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun famously referred to as “tinker[ing] with the machinery of death.” But the death penalty was clearly on his mind.

The U.S. Supreme Court last month declined to hear a death sentence appeal made by Colorado Department of Corrections inmate Nathan Dunlap, who was convicted of killing four people at an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese’s in 1993. Dunlap would be the first prisoner executed in Colorado since 1997.

In the months before his death, Clements had talked with staff and members of the death penalty abolition movement about Dunlap and the financial, logistical and emotional strain his execution would put on the department and its staff.

The decision to execute Dunlap now lies with Gov. John Hickenlooper. The Governor is weighing whether to support the repeal bill. The proposed repeal comes in the wake of heated partisan debate at the Capitol over gun control, same-sex civil unions and immigrant tuition legislation, which have all recently passed in the Democratic-controlled state house, placing pressure on the moderate governor not to appear to be leaning too far to the left.

Edit note: An earlier version of this post listed Gov. Dick Lamm as a Republican. He was a Democratic officeholder.