Colorado was set to repeal the death penalty this year. What went wrong?

Anguish, anger and frustration as the state's fifth repeal effort in a dozen years crumbled

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)

A few weeks ago, in preparation for what she knew would be an emotional debate on the state Senate floor over whether to repeal Colorado’s death penalty, Sen. Julie Gonzales crafted a speech making her case for abolition. She wrote about why she believes the death penalty is an “abhorrent and terrible” practice. She explained why she would vote for the repeal bill — legislation she co-sponsored — in spite of her regret over the bill’s rushed introduction, a process that wounded her colleague, Sen. Rhonda Fields, whose son’s killers now sit on Colorado’s death row.

On Tuesday morning, Gonzales stood on the floor of the Senate and gave a version of that speech. But, instead of explaining why she was voting for abolition, she tearfully explained why she was pulling it. The effort to repeal the death penalty during this session was ended.

“I’m going to give (the bill) a dignified death, not a torturous one,” Gonzales said.

The collision of the political and the personal — and the anguish, anger and frustration that resulted — derailed a bill once seen as near-guaranteed to pass this year. Communication breakdowns, a fumbled rollout, and, critically, four wavering Democrats led to the bill’s demise. Despite a 19-16 Democratic majority in the Senate, abolitionists simply couldn’t rally the votes.

In recent days, Gonzales said, she and her co-sponsor, fellow Denver Democrat Angela Williams, spoke several times with Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg and Senate President Leroy Garcia about how to proceed. The choice: bring the bill to the floor for a vote and risk a likely defeat, or pull it altogether and launch a new, more careful repeal effort next year.

Gonzales said she, Fenberg and Garcia preferred to wait. Williams argued that it should go to the floor for a vote. Overruled, she chose not to stand with her co-sponsor on the Senate floor as Gonzales announced they were pulling the bill.

“I did not agree with that course of action,” Williams said. “I wanted it to go through the process just like any other piece of legislation.”

She also said she was “very disappointed” in an interview Fenberg gave The Independent on Friday, in which he said he wouldn’t bring the repeal bill to a vote unless he knew he had the 18 votes it needed to pass.

Gonzales was equally unhappy, saying she was blindsided by Williams’s plan for rolling out the bill in early March — that she found out on a Friday about a sequence of events that was to begin the next Monday.

“Sen. Williams showed a deep disrespect to our colleagues at multiple points through the process,” Gonzales said, adding that Williams’s decision not to join her on the floor “was but one of the signs of disrespect during this process.”

Gonzales said that among the other signs was that Williams failed to solicit Fields’s input on the bill, which was introduced in the Senate, celebrated in a press conference and debated in a committee hearing on three consecutive days — an unusually swift timeline for any bill.

“I consider that a 1-2-3 punch,” Fields, the only Democrat who announced they’d vote against the bill, said at the time.

Gonzales said that after her speech Tuesday, she spoke with Fields.

“We were both kind of crying,” Gonzales said. “I told her, ‘Senator, you know I’m going to bring this bill back next year.’ She laughed and she said, ‘I know.’”

Next year’s repeal effort, which will be the sixth in Colorado in about a dozen years, will lead with the kind of “respect and conversation” that this year’s process lacked, Gonzales said.

She and Williams agree that the bill needs another chance in 2020.

“Absolutely,” Williams said. “I’ve already pulled the title.”

But Williams and Gonzales are unlikely to work together as the lead sponsors of next year’s bill.

“She should check her facts,” Gonzales said, “because I’ve already pulled the title.”

Silence from the swing votes

Though the sponsors disagreed on Tuesday’s course of action, they share at least one common source of ire: the four swing-vote Senate Democrats whose respective hang-ups over the bill produced the uncertainty that ultimately killed the repeal.

Those swing voters — Sens. Jessie Danielson, Joann Ginal, Tammy Story and Nancy Todd — were never forced to reveal their positions on the bill because no vote was ever cast. But each, according to several sources, said they were deterred at least in part by the rollout of the bill and its impact on Fields.

Ginal and Story, Williams said, “committed to me” about two weeks ago that they would vote for the bill. Both Ginal and Story have indicated in town hall meetings and conversations with abolitionists that they oppose the death penalty.

“They verbally told me, ‘yes,’” Williams said.

Gonzales and Williams questioned the idea that the botched process could offend the four swing voters to the point that, a month after the bill’s introduction, they remained undecided — at least in public.

“I think the process is something that people are hiding behind because they don’t want to share what their votes are,” Williams said. “This bill has been on the calendar almost 30 days. We heard people talk about the process, so we slowed it down.

“There are people in this chamber who say they’re so progressive, but you don’t want to vote on this progressive issue? … Everyone’s walking around here talking about how progressive they are. Well, it was put to the test.”

Gonzales said she went out of her way during March to give her colleagues as much time as they needed to come to peace with how they’d vote on the bill. The planned floor debate and vote was postponed nine times between March 11 and April 1. But she’s skeptical of those who still might say they’re hung up on the process.

“I’m not going to play politics with the issue” by forcing a vote, Gonzales said. “So let’s remove all doubt. If you have process concerns, we’ll do it next year. And we’ll do it right.”

In the hours following the bill’s shelving, as was the case in the days leading up to it, none of the four swing voters were willing to explain their thinking.

When The Independent approached Danielson to ask for an interview, she said she was too busy to talk about it — the same response she’d given when asked on Friday.

“Maybe another day,” she said Tuesday, quickly turning away.

By phone Friday, Story said she was running errands, so the timing wasn’t great for a conversation about the death penalty.

Approached at her office Tuesday, Story said she couldn’t talk because she had to get somewhere, but offered that The Independent could check with her staff to try to schedule an interview for later in the day. Her staff never followed up.

Around 11:20 a.m. in the basement of the Capitol, shortly after Gonzales delivered her speech, Ginal said she only had a few minutes, not enough time to do justice to such an important issue.

“I plan on talking about it, but not this quickly,” Ginal said. She agreed, however, to be interviewed later on Tuesday — then never returned a text and call.

Todd was the only one among the four who welcomed a conversation. She’s a Capitol veteran, termed out next year. She’s voted twice on previous death penalty repeal efforts — one vote for it, another against it. Her mixed feelings, she explained, stem from the fact that all three men currently on Colorado’s death row resided in her district. She’s also close to Fields.

But, like the other three swing voters, Todd would not reveal what her position was on this year’s bill.

“I did decide. I’m not going to tell you,” she said. “I don’t think it matters at this point.”

Todd added, “It’ll matter next year. So come back and ask me next year.”

Fields said she didn’t lobby Danielson, Ginal, Story or Todd. Williams said she doesn’t believe that.

“I can’t confirm” Fields tried to sway them, Williams said, “but I suspect so.”

“If she says she doesn’t believe it,” Fields responded, “she needs to go directly to the source.”

Lawmakers on both sides of the issue professed at various points to have no idea how the swing voters were leaning, though some were convinced Danielson was a “no.”

Abolitionists are resolved to be more thoughtful in 2020.

“The way we treat each other needs to be as important as the policy itself,” Gonzales said.

Fields agrees, and said of the repeal bill she knows is coming back, “Bring it on.”

1 COMMENT

  1. So, if none of the Senators had had a loved one murdered (or maybe the Senator was a Republican), the bill would have passed because the issue of “disrespecting a colleague” wouldn’t have been extant. I agree with Williams on her comment about the so called “progressive” members of the Senate.

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