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Death penalty: As legislators consider repeal, John Morse says he's now supportive

With the new year comes a new legislative session, and there's already talk about a potential effort to repeal the death penalty in Colorado.

And John Morse, a Democrat and the new president of the Senate, says he is likely to support a repeal. This would be a major shift from his previous stance on the matter -- and it will be a personal struggle for him, he says.

The Denver Post and other local outlets are reporting this week that Boulder Representative Claire Levy, a Democrat, is considering legislation to repeal the death penalty in the state.

As the Post notes, that debate is sure to be highly charged given recent high-profile crimes in the state, including the Aurora theater shooting in which suspect James Holmes killed twelve and injured dozens more and the abduction and killing of ten-year-old Jessica Ridgeway. Holmes' defense is expected to argue that he is mentally ill, which would prevent him from facing the death penalty, and Austin Reed Sigg, the seventeen-year-old Ridgeway suspect, is too young to face the death penalty.

Our recent cover story, "Lethal Election," explored how questions of the death penalty was impacting the race for district attorney in Arapahoe County, where Holmes will be tried.

Morse, who represents Colorado Springs, was asked about a possible call to repeal near the end of a recent pre-legislative forum for reporters, at which gun control dominated the conversation.

Senate President John Morse, second to right, addresses reporters at pre-legislative forum.
Senate President John Morse, second to right, addresses reporters at pre-legislative forum.
Sam Levin

"There's almost always folks in my caucus [interested in a repeal]," he said. "A couple years ago when that bill was up...I voted no for the repeal, so to keep the death penalty. I do think that in the State of Colorado, it is well-administered. So there's an argument to keep the death penalty for that purpose, and...that it could be on the books for situations like Aurora and like Columbine."

Still, he said, he recognizes in those kinds of horrific tragedies that the perpetrators are often so profoundly mentally ill the death penalty isn't even an option. "It costs a lot of money to keep the death penalty on the books, as the public defender's office then has to have a team ready to defend against it any time that it's filed," he added.

Pointing to a common criticism of the death penalty, he said, "I also recognize that the current folks that are all on death row all happen to be African-American males. The sample size is small, so it's hard to say that therefore it's discriminatory. But at the same time, they are 100 percent African-American and there are arguments throughout the country that it is disproportionately applied and therefore should be eliminated."

He continued, "If, in fact, it is introduced as a bill this year, I will struggle with it, but likely end up voting to repeal it, if somebody introduces it this year."

He added, "I think there's talk about it all the time."

The three death row inmates in Colorado are black. The state has executed one person since the penalty was reinstated in 1976.

Representative Mark Ferrandino, the new speaker in Colorado, told reporters that he has spoken to both interest groups and other legislators about the death penalty, and said his opinion has not changed on the matter. "I voted in favor of a repeal and would continue to be in favor of repealing the death penalty," he said.

More from our Politics archive: "Video: Diana DeGette pushes for immediate vote on high-capacity magazine ban"

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.


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