Effort to repeal Colorado’s death penalty reaches new milestone

Lawmakers have tried to abolish the death penalty since 2009. This year marks the sixth, and perhaps final, attempt

Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Democrat from Denver, speaks in support of abolishing the death penalty on the Senate floor on Jan. 30, 2020. Gov. Jared Polis signed the bill to repeal the death penalty on March 23, 2020. (Photo by John Herrick)

Update: This story was originally published on Jan. 30. On Friday, Jan. 31, the Senate gave final approval to the bill by a vote of 19-13. And on Tuesday, Feb. 19, the House Judiciary Committee passed the bill by a vote of 6-3, along party lines. The bill is expected for a vote in the House next week. 

The Colorado Senate on Thursday voted to abolish the death penalty, marking a significant step in a hard-fought criminal justice reform effort that has stretched on for more than a decade. 

For nearly five hours, senators argued over morality and justice during a floor debate that largely followed party lines, with three Republicans voting for it and two Democrats voting against it. The final vote on Friday was 19-13. The bill could be taken up in the House as soon as Monday.  

The Senate chamber was unusually quiet Thursday morning. Some House lawmakers peered into the chamber to listen in. One Republican senator said he was undecided before voting against the repeal. Abolitionists watched from the balcony above the chamber still nervous even though the votes needed to pass the bill were all but certain. This year’s bill marks the sixth attempt to abolish the death penalty since 2009. 

Last year, amid a more bitter debate, Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Democrat from Denver, pulled a repeal bill at the last minute because it was unclear whether it would pass even though Democrats controlled the Senate by two votes. In brief remarks ahead of Thursday’s vote, Gonzales said she was there to listen, but made her position known. 

“This idea that we should say murder is wrong except when the state does it strikes me as untenable,” she said. 

Sen. Rhonda Fields, a Democrat from Aurora, who has served in the state legislature since 2011, has been one of the most vocal opponents of repeal. Two of the three men on death row were responsible for the 2005 murders of her son, Javad Marshall-Fields, who was scheduled to testify in a murder trial, and his fiancee, Vivian Wolfe. Field’s rarely raises her voice in debate, but she did several times Thursday as she flipped through a binder of notes with a photo of Javad on the cover. His birthday was Wednesday and he would have been 37 years old. 

“Evil does exist,” Fields said. “And we need to have a way to address the evil that we are confronted with.” 

Sen. Rhonda Fields met with reporters in her office after the Senate voted to abolish the death penalty on Jan. 30, 2020. (Photo by John Herrick)

Some senators have come to terms with the issue since the bill was introduced and pulled last year. 

Jessie Danielson, a Democrat from Wheat Ridge, has not stated her position on the repeal effort for more than a year. But on Thursday, she told her colleagues to vote against it because of the effect it would have on Fields. 

“It’s not a theoretical conversation,” Danielson said. “It’s about our friend and our colleague and I’m not going to ignore that.” 

Sen. Jack Tate, a Republican from Centennial, said he has been thinking about the death penalty since the last legislative session, too. 

“What is the death penalty for? Who does it serve? What kind of justice does it work to render and for who? And should the state have the power over life and death,” Tate said. “… I don’t support the state having the power over life and death.” 

The divide separating senators who support capital punishment and those seeking to abolish it revealed itself throughout the debate. Lawmakers offered several amendments with the hope of compromise, including one that would refer the question of whether to repeal the death penalty to the ballot. All amendments failed. 

“You either support the death penalty or you don’t,” said Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Democrat from Commerce City. “If there are going to be 17 amendments or 17 loopholes to this policy, are we actually repealing the death penalty?” 

Since 1976, 21 states and D.C. have abolished the death penalty either through legislation or court action. None repealed the death penalty through a ballot measure, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Colorado’s three death inmates are Robert Ray and Sir Mario Owens, found guilty in the murder of Field’s son and his fiancee, and Nathan Dunlap, who killed four people at a Chuck E. Cheese in 1993. All three men are black and were prosecuted in the 18th Judicial District. Colorado’s last execution was that of Gary Lee Davis, a convicted murderer and rapist, in 1997. 

As the bill stands, repeal would apply only to convictions after July 1, 2020. But Gov. Jared Polis, who has said he would sign a repeal bill, has said he would commute Dunlap’s sentence. Both Ray and Owens are appealing their sentences. 

The bill still needs final approval in the Senate before going to the House. Democrats control that chamber 41 to 24 and are likely to pass the measure and send it to the governor’s desk. But there could be a drawn-out fight. Rep. Dave Williams, a Republican from Colorado Springs, said he will seek to stall debate in the House. Whether Colorado should repeal the death penalty should be decided by voters, he said. 

“This will not stand. The people should decide,” Williams told reporters in the Senate chamber.

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