Twenty states have banned or suspended the death penalty, and this could be the year Colorado joins them. Public support for capital punishment is declining. And Democrats, some of whom campaigned on doing away with state-sponsored executions, now control state government.
Sen. Lois Court of Denver will support such legislation, but she knows passage is never assured. She recalls the painful path a similar bill took in 2013 — one year after the deadly Aurora theater shootings, when, like this year, Democrats held the statehouse and the governor’s mansion.
Court, then a state representative, remembers sitting in the bill’s final committee hearing. She opposed capital punishment then, as she does now. But back in 2013, events, public mood and perhaps politics played a role the committee’s ultimate decision to reject the repeal bill.
Before the vote was called, Court pointed out to fellow committee members that voters did not ask lawmakers to repeal the death penalty that year. And, she said, the governor at the time, John Hickenlooper, was conflicted on the issue, signaling he might veto the bill. Adding to the fraught atmosphere in the committee room was the presence of Rep. Rhonda Fields, whose son, Javad Marshall-Fields, was murdered in 2005. Fields, who is now a senator, supported the prosecutors’ decision to seek the death penalty, and still does today.
You could “feel the weight” in the room, as one lawmaker put it.
When the roll was called to kill the bill, Court sighed, “yes.”
Six years later, Court says, the situation is different. Public support is swinging against capital punishment, as evidenced by the recent election of Attorney General Phil Weiser, who campaigned against capital punishment. So, too, did some newly elected Democratic lawmakers. And, Court said, Gov. Jared Polis is on board.
“The governor now says he’ll sign it,” Court said, now the Senate president pro tempore. “Full steam ahead.”
Supporters of the repeal, who cite the high cost of prosecuting a death sentence and racial biases in the criminal justice system, could introduce a bill in the Senate as soon as this month.
“A flat out repeal of the death penalty is what we want to do,” said Sen. Angela Williams, a Democrat from Denver who plans to introduce the bill in the Senate.
Since the nationwide moratorium on death penalty was lifted in 1976, and the punishment was reinstated in Colorado, the state has executed one man, Gary Lee Davis, a murderer and rapist.
Today, there are three men on death row. They include Nathan Dunlap, who was convicted for killing four people at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in 1996. Hickenlooper granted Dunlap a reprieve, delaying his death sentence unless reversed by a future governor. Also awaiting executions are Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray, both of whom were convicted for the 2005 murders of Javad Marshall-Fields, Sen. Fields’ son, and his fiancée, Vivian Wolfe, who were scheduled to testify in a murder trial.
The issue is still very personal for Fields, a Democrat from Aurora. She argues the death penalty can help solve crimes. For example, district attorneys can use the threat of the death penalty to prompt a confession, she said, as they did when a Weld County man confessed to killing his pregnant wife and two daughters, with the understanding that prosecutors would not seek the death penalty in exchange. The man was later sentenced to life without parole. Opponents of the death penalty, however, say this strategy raises ethical concerns about forced confessions.
Williams, who is working with Sen. Julie Gonzales to draft a bill, said she wants to introduce the legislation before lawmakers begin work on the budget, which is likely to happen in early March. In the House, Rep. Jeni Arndt, a Fort Collins Democrat, and Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, a Commerce City Democrat, will work to pass the bill through the House.
Gonzales remembers when former Senator Lucia Guzman fought to pass the bill. Gonzales, who took Guzman’s seat after she left office due to term limits, said she wants to carry forward that legacy. She also said she has concerns about racial bias in the criminal justice system, which might explain why the three men on death row are black.
“Every single aspect of our criminal justice system is imbued with racial bias. And that is also evidenced by the individuals who are currently sitting on death row,” Gonzales said.
Sen. Brittany Pettersen, a Democrat from Lakewood, who also voted against the bill in 2013, said she plans to do the opposite this time around. The committee vote, she said, still haunts her today. But at the time, in the wake of the Aurora theater shooting, she said her constituents largely supported the death penalty.
“As a leader, I think you’re elected to represent your constituents. It’s always a kind of a balance and a tug-of-war,” she said.
But, she added, “It’s something that I fundamentally don’t believe in. So I will be voting with my values this year and I believe that my constituents will still support me.”