Death penalty passes the House after hours of debate focused on victims

Pro-capital punishment lawmakers described in often gruesome detail Colorado's most notorious recent killings

The state Capitol on Jan. 8, 2020, the opening day of the session. (Photo by John Herrick)
The state Capitol on Jan. 8, 2020, the opening day of the legislative session. Lawmakers returned to the Capitol on May 26. (Photo by John Herrick)

Update: This story was originally published on Feb. 25, 2020, when the House passed the death penalty repeal bill by a voice vote. It was updated on Wednesday after the House voted to repeal the death penalty by a vote of 38 to 27. Three Democrats, Reps. Brianna Titone, Tom Sullivan, and Kyle Mullica, voted against it. It now goes to Gov. Jared Polis for a signature. 

In a last-ditch effort to block the all but certain repeal of Colorado’s death penalty, a group of Republican lawmakers shared detailed stories of heinous murders, at times drawing tears from lawmakers in a debate that lasted until early this morning. 

“In the upside-down world here at the Capitol, there are legislators who will vote to let a cold-blooded murderer go free,” said Rep. Lori Saine, a Republican from Firestone. “I don’t think you can make that decision.”

The bill, which passed the House 38-27 on Wednesday and will likely be signed by the governor this spring, would make Colorado the 22nd state to abolish capital punishment. Gov. Jared Polis has called the death penalty ineffective both in terms of cost and as a deterrent. He also said its implementation “seems erratic” given that James Holmes, a white man, was spared death after he killed 12 people in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting.

In January, the bill cleared its highest hurdle when it passed the state Senate. Sen. Rhonda Fields, a Democrat from Aurora who supports the death penalty, led the charge against the repeal. The issue is personal for her. 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. Fields’s opposition was enough to persuade Jessie Danielson, a Democrat from Wheat Ridge, to oppose the bill, too. 

There was little question the bill, sponsored by Reps. Jeni Arndt of Fort Collins and Adrienne Benavidez of Denver, would pass the House. Democrats, who generally support repealing the death penalty, control the chamber 41-24. But they knew the fight would be long and emotional. Rep. Tom Sullivan, a Democrat from Centennial, supports the death penalty. His son, Alex, was among those Holmes killed in Aurora. Sullivan compared his effort to stand up to his party to the students in Tiananmen Square who stood up to the Chinese government in 1989. He referenced the popular photo of a student staring down a line of tanks driven by people hidden behind a wall of metal. “I know exactly how that student feels,” he said. Except in this situation, he said, “I know who’s driving this tank.”

During the House debate on Monday night, Democrats argued the death penalty represents a racial injustice. There are 539 people in Colorado who could have been sentenced to death, advocates have said, and only three have been. All three are black and went to Overland High in Aurora and were prosecuted in the 18th Judicial District. Nationally, 41% of people on death row are black, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, even though African Americans make up just 12% of the U.S. population. 

“You can’t say that the death penalty is applied equally and justly when it’s been able to pinpoint so accurately one community. It’s painful. It’s painful to me as a 40-year-old black man that comes from southwest Aurora,” said Jovan Melton, a Democrat from Denver. 

To test that moral conviction, Republicans, reading from notes, told stories of victims of horrific crimes, the details of which brought some lawmakers to tears. 

Rep. Larry Liston, a Republican from Colorado Springs, spoke in stark terms about one of the three men on death row, Nathan Dunlap, who killed four people at a Chuck E. Cheese in 1993: Sylvia Crowell, Colleen O’Connor, Ben Grant and Marge Kohlberg. “Bang. He shoots her in the other ear,” he said as lawmakers stood to honor those who were killed that day. “He executed four innocent people just doing their jobs.”  

After his remarks, Rep. Daneya Esgar, a Democrat from Pueblo, noted how quiet the House chamber was. “I do want to ask though that we be careful using loaded references that may invoke some traumatic experiences. Just remember there are members who have experiences in this area.” Sullivan was standing in the back of the chamber. 

“To that point,” Saine, a GOP lawmaker, told Esgar, “if we didn’t want to relive traumatic experiences, we wouldn’t bring this bill.” 

Saine then read a statement of opposition from John and Maria Castillo, parents of 18-year-old Kendrick, who was killed during the STEM school shooting in 2019. Kendrick was shot as he tried to tackle one of the two students involved in the shooting. 

Rep. Matt Gray, a Democrat from Broomfield, asked GOP lawmakers to refrain from sharing stories of victims. 

“Speak to your beliefs. Speak to your understanding. Speak to about how you feel. You were elected to make decisions in this body. Don’t speak to the experiences of others if you don’t know you fully understand them,” Gray said. He added, “Proceed with humility.” 

Saine shot back, saying, “it’s not very humble to lecture on humility,” and doubled down. Reading from her notes as lawmakers stood, she told the story of Chris Watts, who confessed to murdering his pregnant wife and two daughters, ages 3 and 4, in 2018. Over 15 minutes, she recounted the details, reading from FBI interviews and an autopsy report. Watts was sentenced to life in prison after prosecutors dropped the death penalty in exchange for a confession.

Saine did not contact Shanann Watts’s parents before making her remarks, which Saine said included only public information. Shanann’s family did not want to pursue the death penalty, in part due to how long it takes to resolve death penalty cases, according to Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke.  

Later, Sullivan stood at the podium wearing his son’s leather jacket. For over an hour, he recounted the murders of those in the Aurora theater. He named those who were shot, projecting their faces on a screen at the front of the room. He projected other photos of the crime scene: A shotgun, a semi-automatic rifle, the killer’s sedan in the parking lot. He shared photos of Alex when he was younger. He said he spent years trying to obtain the last photo taken of his son. 

“It’s Exhibit 2083,” he said, holding up a paper folder. “This is the picture of my son lying on the floor in the Aurora theater. I’m not going to open them up and show you guys.” 

He choked up only once, when he held up a green lanyard his son gave him. He told lawmakers it was a speech he’s thought about since it became clear they had the votes to pass the bill. He said he wanted to get it just right, and spent nights awake thinking about it. 

“I’ve probably said too much, probably haven’t said enough. I don’t believe I will ever know what the answer is to any of this,” he told lawmakers. “Just to be clear, I will not be the one to tell the next family who has to endure a lifetime like I have what justice must look like for them.” 

Vote against this bill, he urged his colleagues, and the debate continued on into the early hours of the morning. 

Just before the clock struck 4 a.m., following a flurry of amendments to derail the bill, lawmakers passed the bill by a voice vote.