Helen Griffiths stood beside a wooden podium inside the Second Baptist Church in Boulder on Monday and delivered a well-rehearsed presentation to about two dozen members of the Boulder County branch of the NAACP.
“We think it’s fundamentally wrong for the government to have the right to kill its own people,” said Griffiths, a public policy associate with ACLU Colorado.
She rattled off familiar talking points about inequities in death sentences. There are 539 people in Colorado who could have been sentenced to death, she said. Only three have been. All three are black men. All three went to Overland High in Aurora. And all were prosecuted in the 18th Judicial District. Some people in the audience gasped. Others shook their heads.
The short presentation marked the early stages of an organized campaign to put pressure on Democratic lawmakers to repeal Colorado’s death penalty in the upcoming legislative session, which begins Jan. 8. Next year would mark the seventh attempt at banning capital punishment in Colorado.
Lawmakers passed more than a dozen criminal justice reforms last session. Repealing the death penalty seemed like a done deal as lawmakers convened. Democrats controlled the House by a wide margin. Gov. Jared Polis was on board. And Democrats controlled the Senate by two votes.
But the debate that ensued was heated, emotional and personal at times. At the center of it was state Sen. Rhonda Fields, a Democrat from Aurora, who has served in the state legislature since 2011. Two of the three men on death row were responsible for the 2005 murders of her son, Javad Marshall-Fields, and his fiancee, Vivian Wolfe. Marshall-Fields was scheduled to testify in a murder trial. Fields’s daughter, Maisha, testified against repealing the death penalty during an hours-long committee hearing.
When the bill came up for a vote in the Senate, several Democrats wavered. Among them were two senators, Jessie Danielson of Wheat Ridge and Tammy Story of Conifer. The prior year, Story unseated a Republican and Danielson replaced an independent. Senators on the fence said they were concerned the bill was introduced and put to a vote too fast. It was introduced March 4 and up for a Senate vote on April 2.
Those concerns were enough for Sen. Julie Gonzales of Denver, a lead sponsor, to pull the bill and prevent it from going to a vote. It was a dramatic and swift end to the debate. She told her colleagues the bill would be back. And the next time “there would be nothing left to hide behind except the policy itself.”
But some cannot be persuaded.
Fields is among them. She convinced some of her colleagues not to vote for the repeal bill last session, something she said she didn’t take lightly.
“It created tension within our caucus. And I am someone who wants to promote unity,” Fields told The Colorado Independent this week. “For me it was really uncomfortable. I wanted to do things to uplift our principles and our values.”
She supports the way the ACLU is starting the conversation earlier this year. But she remains firm in her views. For her, the death penalty means closure and justice. She sees it as a tool for solving murder cases because district attorneys can use the death sentence leverage for a confession.
“My son was murdered in 2005. I’ve been having these kind of conversations about justice and the death penalty since 2005,” Fields said. “It’s hard to convince someone to change their position. Either you’re for it or not.”
Fields isn’t the only lawmaker for whom the issue is personal. Rep. Tom Sullivan, a Democrat from Centennial, also supports the death penalty. His son, Alex, was among the 12 people murdered during the Aurora theater shooting in 2012.
“I’m prepared to have that conversation and I think I have made myself clear to [my colleagues] that I am going to be very blunt and honest,” Sullivan said.
“I am of the belief that there are people who have lost their privilege to be amongst the rest of society and we have a mechanism to take care of that.”
The death penalty repeal is unlike other policies, supporters say. Such moral views can’t be swayed with a factsheet.
“How do we have this policy conversation in a way that recognizes the humanity of everyone involved?” said Sen. Julie Gonzales of Denver, who backed the death penalty repeal bill last session.
“None of these conversations are ever easy. None of the conversations are quick,” Gonzales said in an interview Monday. “It is as much the ‘what’ as the ‘how.’ I’m trying to be very intentional and very thoughtful and very slow about the work we’re doing this session.”
The ACLU is organizing events in the districts represented by Democrats who may be undecided on the issue. The swing-vote Democrats included Danielson, Story, Joann Ginal and Nancy Todd. The Colorado Independent sought comment from them for this story. It will be updated when they respond.
The ACLU is also targeting Democratic party leadership in the hope they will make it a priority. Inside the church Tuesday, people were writing letters to Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg and House Speaker KC Becker, both of whom are from Boulder. One person stepped out into the hall to leave them messages on their Capitol voicemail. They discussed writing letters to the editor in the local newspaper, the Boulder Daily Camera. The mood was jubilant.
Then a man asked whether Fields is still serving in the Senate.
“Yes,” Griffiths replied.
There was a moment of silence. It was a stark reminder of just how personal this issue is to some in the state Capitol. And just how steep the road ahead will be.