Many Coloradans who favor the death penalty might be surprised to learn juries here seldom impose a death sentence, and Colorado rarely executes an inmate. Indeed, over the past 50 years – during which more than 8,100 murders were committed in the state – Colorado has executed one person.
Colorado imposes the death penalty on fewer of its death-eligible defendants than any other state, according to a 2015 analysis in the Denver University Law Review. What is happening here is happening across the country – fewer and fewer communities are pursuing the death penalty because of the exorbitant expense, interminable delays in reaching a conclusion, the possibility of error, and an ever-growing awareness of the barbarity of this modern-day lynching.
A comprehensive review in the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law documents that six-sevenths of all American counties have not carried out an execution in nearly 50 years. Over 70% of Americans reside in counties that have executed one person or less during this period. Columbia Law School professor James Liebman and colleagues have noted, “As a matter of honestly faced fact, therefore, the death penalty is not the punishment for murder in the United States; the penalty instead is life without the possibility of parole, but with a small chance of execution a decade later.”
This reality seems to have recently dawned on James Bullock, district attorney for the 16th Judicial District that covers Bent, Crowley and Otero counties in southeast Colorado. After seven years and nearly $2 million in legal costs, his office reached a plea deal under which Miguel Contreras-Perez will serve out the remainder of his life in prison for killing Sgt. Mary Ricard, a Colorado Department of Corrections officer, at the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility in Ordway in 2012.
While Mr. Bullock’s quixotic jousting in pursuit of the death penalty might yield him some votes at election time, it will be all Coloradans – and not just taxpayers in his judicial district – who will foot the bill. Money wasted in a futile endeavor could have been spent on a variety of ways to combat crime, and on rehabilitative services and grief counseling.
“I am disgusted with the justice system. Colorado’s justice system is neither swift nor just,” says Katie Smith, Sgt. Ricard’s daughter. In 2015, when the DA announced he would seek the death penalty, she said the family had suffered enough and did not want the DA to prolong their agony by initiating the marathon proceedings.
Lawyers and law-enforcement officials know – and victims’ families learn the hard way – that a verdict of death from the jury sets in motion a multi-layered system of state and federal judicial review which can take a dozen years or more. Few families have the stomach to relive their nightmare through ensuing appeals, reversals, and retrials.
Yet, according to numerous studies, appellate reviews are necessary because of the high number of reversible errors in capital cases. Studies have also shown prosecutors are more likely to seek the death penalty against black or Hispanic defendants, and more likely to seek it if the victim was a white female.
Evan Mandery, a professor at the John Jay College for Criminal Justice in New York, sums it up: “No rich white murderer has ever been sentenced to die, so you need to be almost certainly a person of color, probably killed a white person, did it in a state with the death penalty, did it in a county within that state where the prosecutor aggressively supports the death penalty.”
Communities across the country are becoming aware such realities are in sharp contrast to our image of our judicial system as fair and even-handed. Since executions are becoming rare and rarer, legal scholars have raised the possibility the U.S. Supreme Court might conclude the death penalty has become cruel and unusual punishment barred by the Eighth Amendment.
Coloradans need not wait for that day. We already know the death penalty is inefficient and expensive, prolongs the agony for victims’ families, and is biased against the underprivileged in our society.
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