Citing flaws in Colorado’s criminal justice system, lawmakers move to repeal the death penalty

Bill ending capital punishment for murder heads to full Senate for a vote

Sen. Angela Williams, who sponsored a bill to ban the death penalty
Sen. Angela Williams, who sponsored a bill to ban the death penalty, listened to testimony on March 6, 2019. (Photo by John Herrick)

In 2004, Alex Perez, then in prison on a murder conviction, was charged with killing a fellow inmate at the Limon Correctional Facility. He said he did not do it, but was promptly placed in solitary confinement at the Colorado State Penitentiary in Cañon City. Prosecutors sought the death penalty in the case.

In 2011, a jury acquitted Perez of the murder, in part due to the lack of physical evidence.

“Even in Colorado, an innocent man can be convicted and executed. I know, because it nearly happened to me,” Perez, 31, told a committee of lawmakers during a nearly six-hour hearing Wednesday on a bill that would end capital punishment in Colorado.

Perez urged lawmakers to pass the bill, and the Senate Judiciary Committee did just that, voting along a 3-2 party line. The vote marks a historic step toward making Colorado the 21st state to ban state executions for murder. The bill heads now to a full vote of the Senate.

Since 2000, there have been five unsuccessful attempts to repeal capital punishment in Colorado due to concerns of cost and racial biases in the criminal justice system. But Democrats now control the state legislature and the governor’s mansion, and optimism is high among members of the party. Gov. Jared Polis has already said he would not just sign the bill, but also commute the sentences of the three men on death row if the proposed ban passes.

Alex Perez testified on a bill to ban the death penalty on March 6, 2019. (Photo by John Herrick)

Since the nationwide moratorium on death penalty was lifted in 1976 and later reinstated in Colorado, the state has executed one man, Gary Lee Davis, a convicted murderer and rapist. That was in 1997.

Ahead of the committee hearing, attorneys, district attorneys and elected officials mingled in the hallway. Catholics, who spoke in support of the bill, had black crosses on their foreheads for Ash Wednesday. Nearly 50 people had signed up to speak, many of whom have testified on similar abolition bills in the past.

Emotions on both sides of the debate ran high. Two of the three men on death row were convicted of the 2005 murders of Javad Marshall-Fields and his fiancee, Vivian Wolfe, both of whom were scheduled to testify in another murder case.

Maisha Fields, sister of Javad and daughter of state Sen. Rhonda Fields, told the committee that the execution of Robert Ray and Sir Mario Owens would be justice. 

“I had to testify multiple times just like I’m doing now,” Fields said. “I had to be my brother’s voice on the stand just like I’m doing now. And every time I tell the story, it’s painful. And I don’t want to feel like it was all for naught. I want to believe in the system, and the fact that we fought for the death penalty, that it matters.”

A panel of mostly Republican district attorneys laid out other arguments against repealing the death penalty, too. They cited details of gruesome murders, including the story of Chris Watts, who pleaded guilty to the 2018 killing of his pregnant wife and two daughters, saying that it’s a needed punishment to deter heinous crimes. Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke said he used the threat of a death sentence to get a murder confession from Watts, a strategy some attorneys say is questionable ethically. 

The district attorneys also refuted cost estimates for death penalty cases and cast doubt on wrongful convictions more generally. El Paso District Attorney Dan May argued that in Colorado, “There has not been in the modern age … a mistake with somebody who has been convicted and given the death penalty.” May was a prosecutor on Perez’s case.  

Nationwide, 164 people on death row have been exonerated since 1973, mostly due to new evidence, according to a report by the Death Penalty Information Center. Juan Melendez is one of them. He was arrested while working in an apple orchard in Pennsylvania in 1984. Just days later, he told The Colorado Independent, he was sitting in a six-by-nine-foot cell in Florida on death row. He said he remembers watching the lights dim each time the electric chair was used for an execution. He contemplated suicide with a plastic bag. After 16 years behind bars, he said another man’s taped confession to the murder was released. The following year, he was exonerated. Melendez, too, came to the state Capitol on Wednesday to support repealing the death penalty.

“We can never release an innocent man from the grave,” Melendez said. He added, “I don’t want to let what happened to me happen to anybody else.”

Juan Melendez came to the Capitol to support a bill to ban the death penalty on March 6, 2019. (Photo by John Herrick)

Opponents of the bill asked lawmakers to refer a measure to the ballot so voters could decide the issue. Since 1976, no state has successfully repealed the death penalty through a ballot measure, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The bill, sponsored by Angela Williams and Julie Gonzales, both Democratic senators from Denver, was introduced Monday, and that provoked Sen. Fields and others to argue that it was being fast-tracked and that in the rush to passage, victims were being sidelined.

“Nobody has reached out to me,” Bobby Stephens, the lone survivor in the 1993 Aurora Chuck E. Cheese restaurant shooting, told lawmakers. Nathan Dunlap is now on death row for those murders.

The testimony from victims drew the attention of lawmakers serving on the committee. But many had already made up their minds.

“I concluded some good deal of time ago that it is the rarest of things for people to change their mind and views about the efficacy of the death penalty,” said Sen. Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs. He added that the death penalty is necessary for the more egregious murders. “It is a matter of personal philosophy and belief.”

In a statement after the vote, Sen. Williams called the death penalty “costly, biased, and an ineffective deterrent of violent crime.” She added, “It is time to repeal the death penalty, and I am confident we will be able to do so this session.”

Sen. Gonzales said a death sentence is “an arbitrary punishment that is irrevocable and permanent.”

Sen. Pete Lee, a Democrat from Colorado Springs who chairs the committee, said sometimes the criminal justice system makes mistakes.

“We don’t always get it right,” he said. He added, “In death penalty cases, there are no do-overs.”

8 COMMENTS

    • He said “vengeance is mine”, which is why God insisted man seek justice, as with the death penalty.

      The death penalty, quite, obviously, cannot be vengeance.

      Neither judge nor jurors can have any connection to the case, they made decisions based upon pre existing law and the facts, presuming that the defendant is innocent, requiring a unanimous jury, in order to impose the death penalty, with only 1 juror (12%) being able to rule over 11 (88%) jurors, the most anti democratic vote in US history, all of which, individually and collectively,, exclude vengeance.

      • Catholic theologian Steven Long details God’s specific biblical killings, here, whereas some say that God would not kill – Long: “This would come as a great surprise to Onan (Genesis 38:10), the firstborn of Egypt (Exodus 12:29), Pharaoh’s army (Exodus 14:28), Aaron’s sons (Leviticus 10:2), Korah (Numbers 16:32), David and Bathsheba’s baby (2 Samuel 12:14-15), Ahaziah (2 Kings 1:16-17), Jeroboam (2 Chronicles 13:20), Jehoram (2 Chronicles 21:14-15), Ezekiel’s wife (Ezekiel 24:16), Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-10), Herod (Acts 12:23), and the many, many others scripture tells us were killed by God.” (3)

        Cardinal Avery Dulles states: “In the Old Testament the Mosaic Law specifies no less than thirty-six capital offenses calling for execution . . . considered especially fitting as a punishment for murder since in his covenant with Noah God had laid down the principle, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in His own image” (Genesis 9:6). In many cases God is portrayed as deservedly punishing culprits with death, as happened to Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Numbers 16). In other cases individuals such as Daniel and Mordecai are God’s agents in bringing a just death upon guilty persons.” (4).

        • I’m trying to understand why I should assign any merit to the opinion of someone who believes all the above ‘Lord said’ crapola. Written by men in power as a way to continue their subjugation of the masses (especially women).

  1. Sen. Gonzales said a death sentence is “an arbitrary punishment that is irrevocable and permanent.”

    Sen. Pete Lee, a Democrat from Colorado Springs who chairs the committee, said sometimes the criminal justice system makes mistakes.

    “We don’t always get it right,” he said. He added, “In death penalty cases, there are no do-overs.”

    Total nonsense.

    Death sentences are, overturned, at a rate of about 40%, with “do overs”, when merited. About 0,4% of all the cases are overturned based upon proof of actual innocence..

    These legislators just make things up, when the obvious facts contradict them.

  2. As a homicide survivor of a mass murder in which I unexpectedly and suddenly lost my beloved sister, my niece and my brother-in- law; I am opposed to the repeal of the death penalty in Colorado. I challenge lawmakers to think deep and hard what kind of legacy they want to leave their offices with. Do they want to leave their offices supporting convicted murderers? Do they want to leave having less legal deterrents for violent crimes? Or, do they want to use their elected power to protect innocent Colorado citizens? I also challenge them to ask themselves why family members of victims are not sought out to include in the process. Why in the current Colorado political climate don’t they return phone calls from Colorado victim support organizations? Just in case readers are not familiar with the aftermath of murder, murder of a family member is irrevocable and permanent. In fact, the impact on the family and friends of the victims as well as the entire community is irrevocable and permanent. My murdered sister was a special needs elementary teacher with a Master’s in education. Her students, their families and education staff and some emergency responders are still reeling from her and her family’s violent deaths. For those survivors of homicide dealing with a less than a life sentence (often as a result of a plea deal to a lessor charges) they must endure the pain of patrol hearings, further testimonies and many hours of time off from work. In my case the offender was given three life sentences. Still, this offender is eligible for commutation every 10 years for the rest of his life – irrevocable and permanent in a State with no death penalty. Some say commutation will never be approved in this case, but if our government officials continue to execute their public service duties more and more in line with politically liberal constituents and special interests; this is a real possibility. If this bill passes it is just another piton for the pro-offender agenda.

  3. ‘pro-offender agenda’? Really? This sounds like calling those of us who favor the right to choose ‘pro-abortion’. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I’m sick of people making such generalized extrapolations. I am sincerely sorry for the loss of your family members, and I do understand the permanence of the loss…but following the abortion analogy: If you agree that the government has the authority to say ‘you must have that baby’, then are you also conceding that the government has the equivalent power to say ‘you must not have that baby’? And just as I wouldn’t want the government to have that authority, I don’t think a government entity should have the right to claim a life in the form of penalty. Reasonable people can have differing opinions, but that’s where I fall. Peace.

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