When policy becomes personal: Statehouse friends take opposite sides on Colorado death penalty bill

Rhonda Fields wants Democrats to slow their repeal push. Jovan Melton says it's time to act.

Sen. Rhonda Fields watched from the sidelines as her Democratic colleagues held a press conference March 5 explaining why they wanted to repeal the death penalty in Colorado. (Photo by Alex Burness)

Jovan Melton and Rhonda Fields are good friends. He ran her campaign for the state House in 2010, and now they’re both representing Aurora at the Capitol — he joined the House in 2013, and she’s now assistant majority leader in the Senate.

As two of the state’s eight black lawmakers, both Melton and Fields are keenly aware of the fact that death row in Colorado, a state with a 5 percent black population, comprises three men, all black, from the same community and same high school, prosecuted in the same judicial district.

The racial inequity in death penalty sentencing is one reason Melton’s thrown his weight behind a proposal to abolish the death penalty in Colorado. Democrats have tried four times in recent years to repeal it, always failing. This year things are different: Dems control both chambers of the legislature and they have in Jared Polis a governor who, unlike predecessor John Hickenlooper, is prepared to sign a repeal bill if it gets to his desk.

As Sen. Lois Court told The Independent last month: “Full steam ahead.”

On this issue, the Democrats are a nearly united front.

But Fields isn’t going to vote for the bill. She’s got a tragic connection to this policy debate: her son, Javad Marshall-Fields, and his fiancée, Vivian Wolfe, were murdered in 2005. Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray were convicted and sentenced to death for their murders. Both remain on death row.

This year’s repeal bill was introduced Monday, sponsored by Sens. Angela Williams and Julie Gonzales. On Tuesday, they and their supporters held a press conference. On Wednesday, the bill will get its first committee hearing.

Fields has taken exception to this timeline. She voiced her displeasure on the Senate floor Tuesday morning:

“I stand before you not only as a senator, but I stand before you as a crime victim. I stand before you because I am a champion for those who have been harmed by crime. Yesterday afternoon — I think it was about 4:30, approaching 5 — I was at my desk and I heard the reading of Senate Bill 182. Senate Bill 182 is designed to abolish the death penalty. That was on Monday, March 4. That evening I heard there was gonna be a press conference.

“Then I read in our bulletin that Senate Bill 182 is going to be heard (by the Senate Judiciary Committee) tomorrow at 1:30. We’re talking about March 4, 5 and 6. I consider that a 1, 2, 3 punch. And when we think about the magnitude of abolishing the death penalty, surely there should be enough time to ensure a thorough and comprehensive debate. Now, what I have described to you is within the rules. It is within our protocol. But my question is: Is it necessary, when we’re considering such a huge policy decision as it relates to abolishing the death penalty?”

Fields attended Tuesday’s press conference. She listened as Williams, Gonzales and a few faith leaders talked about why they believe Colorado should join 20 other states that have abolished capital punishment. They called it immoral and costly, and said it’s enforced arbitrarily. They noted the racial disproportion in the state’s capital punishment sentencing.

“It is irrevocable, it is cruel, it is an unusual practice,” Gonzales said. “And for those reasons, we should abolish it.”

Fields stood stoic, just to the side of where her Democratic colleagues lined up behind a podium. At one point someone came to give her an I’m-here-for-you hug.

When the speakers had finished, a TV reporter asked why the lawmakers had introduced a bill just two days before its committee hearing. He was alluding to Fields’s complaint, though he didn’t reference her by name.

Rep. Jeni Arndt, Sen. Jeff Bridges and Melton all offered some version of the same response.

There is “no rush,” Melton said. “This is not a new issue. … This has been an ongoing conversation.”

After the presser wrapped, Melton spoke about the uncomfortable position he’s found himself in — explaining why he believes his friend and former boss, who’s experienced true tragedy, is wrong to suggest the death penalty abolition effort is being mishandled.

“I understand where she’s coming from,” Melton said. “I’m sympathetic with her and her entire family for what happened. But we have a broken criminal justice system that’s bigger than just one family.”

He said that for him, too, it’s personal. He didn’t lose a loved one like Fields did, but the three death-row inmates are all about his age, from his neighborhood. He knew people in their circles.

“You can’t say that when everyone on death row comes from such a limited pool that we have a real equitable justice system,” he said.

Melton added, “I feel for Sen. Fields. She’s been a longtime friend, longtime colleague. But we have a bigger issue on our hands.”

1 COMMENT

  1. Alex:

    Are you unaware that 22 murderers have been sentenced to death, in the modern death penalty era, post 1976?

    What is the racial breakdown of those 22 inmates and is it in conflict with the racial makeup of capital murderers in Colorado?

    Please look at the racial data that I sent to you.

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