A group of Republican lawmakers introduced a bill today that would make it easier for juries to put someone to death in Colorado. Currently, all 12 jurors in a death penalty case must unanimously decide to call in the Grim Reaper; the new law would make it so only 9 out of 12 would be enough.
State Sen. Kevin Lundberg of Berthoud, Colorado, revealed the bill today in the Senate. You can read the full text of it here. Lundberg and another of the sponsors are on the Senate Judiciary Committee in the upper chamber where Republicans hold control by one seat. Six Republicans and no Democrats so far support the bill they’ve said is a direct result of a non-unanimous jury verdict that spared the life of the Aurora theater shooter this summer.
Critics of the proposed law were quick to point out one particular irony.
“I think what’s most odd about this bill is that we require unanimous juries for a DUI conviction,” says Stacy Anderson of the anti-death penalty Better Priorities Initiative. “So we’re going to set a lower bar to send somebody to death? To actually send someone to death should be the highest bar that a jury has to reach, and a prosecutor has to reach.”
Public defenders in Colorado have argued that in recent years the state has, in a way, de facto abolition of the death penalty. Juries haven’t put someone to death here since 2008. There haven’t been any executions in the state since 1997. Currently Colorado’s death row rolls three deep.
In August, prosecutors were unsuccessful in convincing a jury to come to a unanimous decision to execute the convicted killer in the high-profile trial of the Aurora theater shooting in which 12 people were killed and 70 more injured.
Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler, who prosecuted the case, has said he believes the decision came down to one juror who didn’t want to send the killer to the grave. In an interview with The Colorado Independent last month, Brauchler said while he’s spoken to several other jurors from the trial who were in favor of execution he hasn’t yet heard from the one who opposed it.
“I keep waiting on that holdout juror to reach out to us — and I hope it happens — and sit down and say ‘Here’s what went on, here’s what got me, here’s that point in the trial or here’s that piece of evidence, or something when we were talking that got me,'” Brauchler said.
Brauchler could not immediately be reached for comment about the proposed new law.
Doug Wilson, head of the State Public Defender’s office, said he’d just gotten the bill but after a quick perusal felt it was unconstitutional.
“If it were to pass they will once again jeopardize their death convictions and death verdicts as they did when we had three-judge sentencing as opposed to jury sentencing,” he said. In 1995 lawmakers changed the law so a three-judge panel could decide a death sentence, but that was deemed unconstitutional less than a decade later, and now only juries can deliver execution verdicts.
At the start of this year’s legislative session that began Jan. 13, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper said he would not push for a repeal of the death penalty this year, but hopes to within the next few years. Democratic Senate Minority leader Lucia Guzman said she would not carry a repeal bill this year, though she’s in favor of repeal. 2016 is an election year when many lawmakers are up for re-election. Efforts to abolish the death penalty in Colorado have failed four times in the past, most recently in 2013.
It’s possible even more might be on the legislative horizon this year for greasing the skids toward death row.
Douglas County Republican Rep. Kim Ransom told The Independent before the session started that she was looking to carry a bill that would also help prosecutors secure a death sentence in capital cases. The proposed law would give prosecutors a second chance with a new jury— a mulligan, a do-over— if they weren’t able to convince the first to delete someone from the Earth.
[Photo credit: Paige via Flifkr]