Polis sets up new board to help determine who deserves clemency for past convictions

The advisory board could face the tough question of what to do about death row inmate Nathan Dunlap

Dean Williams, director of the Department of Corrections, in Centennial South Correctional Facility, formerly known as CSP II, on July 19, 2019. Williams will serve on the Executive Clemency Advisory Board. (Photo by John Herrick)

Gov. Jared Polis announced on Friday he has appointed seven people to a board that will help him decide whether current or former prison inmates should have their sentences reduced or have past convictions all but wiped from their records. 

The Executive Clemency Advisory Board, created by law in 1969, will provide recommendations to the governor on applications seeking reprieves, commutations and pardons. All members are appointed by the governor. Terms expire on October 17, 2023.

“Clemency is a heavy responsibility. While it is no substitute for reforming the criminal justice system, it is a power that can help transform an individual’s life and I do not take it lightly,” Polis said in a statement. 

Polis has not yet granted clemency to anyone. The Office of Executive Clemency is currently accepting applications. Former Gov. John Hickenlooper pardoned 156 individuals and granted 18 commutations

But Hickenlooper left the fate of death row inmate Nathan Dunlap up to a future governor to decide. Dunlap was convicted for the 1993 Aurora Chuck E. Cheese restaurant shooting that left four people dead. In 2013, Hickenlooper granted Dunlap a reprieve, viewed by some as ducking a tough question and others as being too soft on a convicted murderer.

The new board members could face the tough question of how to handle this case and that of two other death row inmates, Robert Ray and Sir Mario Owens, who were both convicted of the 2005 murders of Javad Marshall-Fields and his fiancee, Vivian Wolfe. Polis ultimately would decide whether to heed their recommendation. 

Polis told CPR he would commute the sentences of the three men if lawmakers repealed the death penalty. But this year’s effort to bar capital punishment in Colorado failed after several Democrats opposed a bill to do so. Sen. Rhonda Fields, the mother of Javad, supports the death penalty and lobbied colleagues to vote against a death penalty repeal. Another repeal effort almost certainly will come up again in the next legislative session. 

Former Gov. Roy Romer denied a request for clemency to Gary Lee Davis, a convicted rapist and murderer, who was executed in 1997. That was Colorado’s last state execution. 

Hassan Latif, the executive director of the Second Chance Center in Aurora, an organization that helps people with criminal convictions find work and housing, is one of the seven people on the board. 

“I don’t know what’s going to come before this council,” he said when asked about commuting the sentences of the men of death row. “My hope is that any kind of injustice or excessive sentencing is a thing we will get a chance to discuss.” 

The board can also recommend a pardon, which can help people obtain certain jobs or licenses otherwise impossible with a felony record. A pardon is different from expungement in that it does not scrub or seal a criminal conviction

“I’m concerned about those who have been released and their options have been hampered by convictions,” Latif said. 

In addition to Latif, the members include:  

  • Dean Williams, executive director of the Department of Corrections 
  • Stan Hilkey, executive director of the Department of Public Safety 
  • Kelly Kissell of Castle Rock, a victims’ rights advocate 
  • Hannah Seigel, a professor from Denver, to serve as a member with experience in juvenile justice or child welfare
  • Dr. Patrick Kevin Fox of Denver to serve as a member with experience in mental health 
  • Alberto Manuel Dominguez, of Windsor, to serve as a member with experience in law enforcement
  • Hans Christopher Meyer, of Denver, and Rabbi Tirzah Firestone Friedman, of Longmont, both of whom will serve as at-large members   

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