The plan to repeal the death penalty in Colorado is coming undone

On-the-fence Democrats threaten to derail a bill that once seemed a good bet to pass

Sen. Rhonda Fields of Aurora was hurt by how her fellow Democrats rolled out last year's death penalty repeal bill. She has vowed to oppose such bills in 2020. (Photo by John Herrick)

Editor’s note: The death penalty stands in Colorado. Tuesday, Democrats in the Colorado Senate abandoned efforts to pass a bill abolishing capital punishment, citing weakening support for the measure.

The bill to abolish the death penalty in Colorado is on life support.

The abolition measure has been delayed repeatedly since Democrats introduced it in the state Senate earlier this month, and the abolitionists now stand at least three votes shy of the majority they’d need to pass it.

Democrats hold a 19-16 edge in the Senate, but Majority Leader Steve Fenberg and multiple other sources said Friday that there are only 15 firm “yes” votes at the moment — 14 Democrats plus Henderson Republican Kevin Priola.

“Right now, I can’t count to 18,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat.

Similar efforts have failed four times in recent years, but things seemed different this year: Democrats control both chambers of the legislature and the new governor, Jared Polis, has broken from predecessor John Hickenlooper by signaling clearly his intention to sign a repeal bill if it reaches his desk.

“Full steam ahead,” Sen. Lois Court told The Independent in February.

“If you’d asked me three months ago,” Fenberg said, “I’d have told you, ‘Yeah, we’re going to pass it this year.’”

That’s not looking likely.

Abolitionists will need to win over three out of four Democrats who say they’re undecided. The toss-up votes, according to those familiar with the negotiations, are Tammy Story of Conifer, Joann Ginal of Fort Collins, Jessie Danielson of Wheat Ridge and Nancy Todd of Aurora.

The Independent reached out to all four lawmakers on Friday. Danielson and Story responded, but neither was keen to discuss their positions; Danielson said she was busy with other work and didn’t want to talk about it, while Story said, “I have not invested the time (to decide) on this issue because I’ve been wholly focused on budget meetings.”

It’s well known, however, that Story opposes the death penalty on moral grounds. Sources said her present concern revolves around the timing of this bill — that this might not be the right year for it.

Danielson, several sources said, seems much more likely a “no” than a genuine undecided, at this point.

If Danielson is indeed a “no” and no other Senate Republicans join Priola on the repeal side, Story, Ginal and Todd all must back the bill in order for it to advance.

Priola told Westword that he supports the repeal for religious reasons. “I’m a practicing Catholic, and I believe being pro-life is important in all you do,” he said. Abolitionists had hoped Republican Sen. Jack Tate of Centennial, who has said he is conflicted on the issue, might break with his party as Priola has, but Tate told The Independent Friday, “I told (Fenberg) to count me as a ‘no’.”

“If and when we get to 18 votes, it’ll come up,” Fenberg said. The bill is on the Senate calendar for Monday, but he acknowledged it’s almost certainly going to get pushed back.

“I don’t want to bring this up without knowing where the votes are, and potentially set (the effort) back,” he said.

Each delay diminishes the bill’s chance of passage. The legislative session ends in early May and the Senate has been mired in partisan dysfunction for weeks, sparring over issues including oil and gas regulations, gun laws and Colorado’s potential role in upending the Electoral College.

A bill as consequential as the death penalty repeal also would bring with it an above-average amount of debate and process. Fields and Republican opponents of the bill have said that the question — literally a life-and-death one — should be up to voters, not the legislature, to decide.

Fenberg was blunt, too, about the fact that some in his caucus simply don’t feel there’s “urgency” to abolish the death penalty now.

Since a national moratorium on the death penalty was lifted in 1976, Colorado has executed just one man — Gary Lee Davis, a murderer and rapist, in 1997. There are three men on death row in Colorado right now.

Abolitionists maintain there is a moral urgency in repealing the death penalty.

“How can we build a better society if we continue to kill people who kill people?” said former state Sen. Lucia Guzman, who previously led the unsuccessful legislative repeal effort, and whose successor, Sen. Julie Gonzales, is a co-sponsor of the current repeal bill.

“We are not moving forward at all. We are wallowing in violence. Our decisions should be about the future,” added Guzman, whose father, Tomas, was murdered in a robbery in 1975.

Beyond the question of urgency, many Democrats — supporters, undecided voters and opponents of the repeal alike — have concerns about how this bill was introduced. They lament that Sen. Rhonda Fields of Aurora wasn’t given an adequate heads-up before the bill dropped.

Fields, the only Senate Democrat confirmed as a “no” vote on the repeal bill, lost her son and his fiancée to murder in 2005. Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray were convicted and sentenced to death for their killings, and they now make up two-thirds of the state’s death row.

Fields complained in a speech on the Senate floor that the bill’s filing, press conference and floor introduction happened on three consecutive days.

“I consider that a 1, 2, 3 punch,” she said in that speech.

Fields said Friday that she and Sen. Angela Williams, who’s driving this bill along with Gonzales, haven’t spoken much since the press conference March 5.

“It’s a very sensitive issue,” Fields said.

She also said that she has not been lobbying any of her colleagues to join her in opposing the repeal effort. But her presence looms large, whether or not her thumb is directly on the scale.

“One of our own was hurt,” Fenberg said. “I think that just changed the calculus.”

Tina Griego contributed to this report.