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.
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.”
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.”