Colorado’s death penalty repeal in holding pattern

Vote margin appears close

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

Colorado’s Senate has for the second time this week postponed its floor debate on a bill to repeal the death penalty. The vote is rescheduled for April 1, after lawmakers iron out the state budget over the next 11 days.

Passage of the bill seemed certain in the Democratic-controlled legislature until the past week and a half, when a few Senate Democrats quietly signaled they may not be supporting it. 

“It’s close, very close,” Sen. Angela Williams, D-Denver, told The Independent.

Williams and others working to abolish capital punishment cite, among other reasons, studies showing it doesn’t deter violent crime; the high cost of taxpayer-funded legal work, and racial inequities in how capital cases are prosecuted in Colorado. African-Americans make up 4 percent of Colorado’s population, yet all three of the state’s death-row inmates are black. Supporters of the death penalty have argued this session that the question of repeal should be referred to voters. Gov. Jared Polis has said would sign a repeal bill and would commute the sentences of the three death row inmates to life in prison.

Two of the three, Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray, were convicted and sentenced to die for the 2005 murders of Javad Marshall Fields and his fiancée, Vivian Wolfe, days before Fields was scheduled to testify against Ray in connection with another murder case. Fields’ mother, Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, is the most high-profile opponent of repeal and has been working with district attorneys in trying to persuade her state Senate colleagues to stand by her in that position.

Fields, who is African American, dismisses concerns that prosecutors in Colorado have disproportionately targeted black defendants with capital prosecution. She says there’s “nothing relevant” about the color of their skin.

“What those death row inmates have in common is that they’re all murderers. Race has nothing to do with this,” she told The Independent earlier this week.

The state Senate is the main hurdle for the repeal bill because the House has a wider margin of Democratic control and is considered more liberal.

Senate Democrats who support repeal have been especially quiet this week, declining to comment publicly as they seek to balance respect for Fields – their assistant majority leader – and her family with objections to what they say is an inhumane and outdated state law. Colorado hasn’t carried out a death sentence since the 1997 execution of convicted murderer Gary Davis by lethal injection.

Conspicuously silent, at least publicly, is Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, who notably didn’t sponsor the repeal bill and who has not made clear where he stands on the issue. Garcia hasn’t responded to our inquiries.

A recovering newspaper journalist, Susan reported for papers in California and Nevada before her 13 years as a political reporter, national reporter and metro columnist at The Denver Post. “Trashing the Truth,” a series she reported with Miles Moffeit, helped exonerate five men, prompted reforms on evidence preservation and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in investigative journalism. Her 2012 project, “The Gray Box,” exposed the effects of long-term solitary confinement. The ACLU honored her in 2017 for her years of civil rights coverage, and the Society of Professional Journalists honored her in April with its First Amendment Award. Susan and her two boys live with a puppy named Hymie whom they’re pretty sure is the messiah.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Rhonda Fields, can you open your heart to save the many by forgiving those who hurt you? Nothing can bring back your son, but you give the gift of life to young men suffering from unjust prosecutions, the Lord will set a place at His table for you and your son. He sees everything in our hearts, and He alone can lift your heavy burden of pain.
    Miss Rhonda, I’ll be praying on it, and I pray that other mother’s sons who owe their lives to you will give thanks and praise you for giving them that which is hardest to give. Forgiveness.

  2. Civilized society has no room for the barbarism of the death penalty. A perpetrator’s loss of freedom to move among us is enough to keep us safe. Revenge is what we train our children not to do. As adults, we know this is not a way to peace of mind.

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