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Death penalty makes us less safe, says ACLU executive

As we've reported, yesterday was World Day to End the Death Penalty, and to mark the occasion, capital punishment opponents gathered at the State Capitol to decry the ultimate penalty with time-tested arguments and new statistics from a white paper and infographic assembled for the occasion; see both below. Among the assertions made by Nathan Woodliff-Stanley, the ACLU of Colorado's executive director, in an interview after the event: "The death penalty may actually be making us less safe."

Speakers at yesterday's event included Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett, Sharletta Evans, the mother of a murder victim, and Robert Dewey, who served nearly sixteen years behind bars for a crime he didn't commit. Dewey, who was ultimately exonerated by DNA evidence, said at the gathering that the death penalty had been discussed in his case, and if it had been imposed, he would have died despite being innocent of the crime for which he was convicted.

Stan Garnett at yesterday's World Day to End the Death Penalty event.
Stan Garnett at yesterday's World Day to End the Death Penalty event.

We had a lot of people coming from a lot of different perspectives," says Woodliff-Stanley. "And we also highlighted research that we and Coloradans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty have done around the cost of these death penalty cases.

"What we've found through open-records requests on prior cases is that death penalty trials in Colorado cost an average of $3.5 million," he continues. "And that's just for the trial. That doesn't count appeals or the cost of maintaining death row, which is much more expensive than maintaining life without the possibility of parole."

This last factoid may strike some folks as counter-intuitive, Woodliff-Stanley acknowledges. "A lot of people think it saves money because you don't have to keep people in prison all their lives. But the reality is, it costs a lot more."

Robert Dewey talking about his opposition to the death penalty.
Robert Dewey talking about his opposition to the death penalty.

To illustrate the price, Woodliff-Stanley highlights the decision of Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey to seek the death penalty against Dexter Lewis in the quintuple homicide at Fero's Bar & Grill in October 2012, as well as Douglas County's years-long death-penalty pursuit of Edward Montour for a prison murder.

"You have counties like Denver, where there have been severe cuts to Head Start programs coming out of the sequester," he notes. "Yet at the same time, you have a county prosecutor initiating a death penalty case that will probably cost in the vicinity of $3.5 million, which could have provided access to Head Start for 500 children. And in Douglas County, they are cutting about $300,000 out of programs for people with developmental disabilities. You have to wonder, if they can't afford something as important as that, how can they afford to spend ten times that much on a single death penalty case."

Continue for more about the ACLU of Colorado's arguments against the death penalty, including photos, an infographic, a video and more.   More dollars-and-cents breakdowns: "One death penalty trial could fund 71 teacher salaries for a year," Woodliff-Stanley calculates, "or the salaries of 77 firefighters or 115 EMTs or paramedics to respond to fires and floods and other disasters."

These numbers and more like them are featured in the following infographic:

Death penalty makes us less safe, says ACLU executive

In Woodliff-Stanley's view, "there are many needs out there that get short shrift because of spending money on death penalty trials that don't really add anything to the public's safety and that really don't deter crime in any way. And the way it's applied is either biased or random. The race and economic status of someone who commits a murder and who they kill is very heavily correlated with who gets executed. And sometimes it's based on where you live. In some jurisdictions, you'd get the death penalty for a crime. In others, you wouldn't."

Woodliff-Stanley acknowledges that capital punishment does accomplish something, though: "It keeps the names of killers in the news and turns them into celebrities."

A case in point, from Woodliff-Stanley's perspective, is Nathan Dunlap, who was convicted in 1996 of killing four people and seriously wounding a fifth during an assault three years earlier at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant. Earlier this year, the question of whether Dunlap would be executed catapulted him back into the headlines, and Woodliff-Stanley says, "we wouldn't have been talking about Nathan Dunlap at all if it hadn't been a death penalty case. And when you consider that there may be people with disturbed minds who may be encouraged to commit crimes by seeing how much attention someone gets for doing these things, the death penalty may be making us less safe."

Dunlap escaped execution, at least for now, after Governor John Hickenlooper granted him a reprieve in May. And while Hickenlooper stopped short of giving Dunlap clemency, meaning a future governor could reverse the decision, he still took a big popularity hit, with one poll showing that survey respondents disagreed with his decision by a 3-1 margin. Now, Hickenlooper's reelection, which many observers had seen as a foregone conclusion, is no longer considered to be a slam dunk.

Continue for more about the ACLU's arguments against the death penalty, including photos, video and more.  

John Hickenlooper announcing his decision in the Nathan Dunlap case this past May.
John Hickenlooper announcing his decision in the Nathan Dunlap case this past May.

As Woodliff-Stanley sees it, Hickenlooper's troubles can't all be chalked up to his death-penalty opposition: "It's hard to disentangle how much of a reaction to him has been on that issue versus the gun-control issue and other things." Still, he concedes that "there clearly was some backlash, and it does take courage in many cases in our country for someone to stand up and say this is wrong. In his case, he went through a very long and thoughtful process coming to the conclusion that the death penalty really isn't right. But what he wants, I believe, is to see that realization among more people in the state.

"I think if more people in Colorado knew what he knows now and had gone through the thought process he's gone through, they'd see why he came to the conclusion he did."

Could the system be reformed in a way that would prevent death-penalty cases from dragging on for decades as the meter runs? Woodliff-Stanley doesn't think so.

"If you streamline the death penalty for the most extreme cases, you streamline it for all of them -- even the ones where the person who's guilty isn't as clear," he says. "It's been documented that 140 people made it all the way to death row but were later positively exonerated. And generally, they spent thirteen years on death row before they were exonerated. If we tried to speed up the process to save money, how many of those 140 people would have been executed before we found out they were innocent?"

Nathan Woodliff-Stanley speaking at yesterday's event.
Nathan Woodliff-Stanley speaking at yesterday's event.

Plenty of other nations don't think such gaffes are worth the risks -- and those that stand by capital punishment aren't the sort of places the U.S. typically chooses to emulate, Woodliff-Stanley feels. "I do find it striking that we're the only Western-style democracy left that still uses the death penalty," he points out. "The countries that use it are places like Syria and North Korea and Iran. I wonder if that's really the company we want to keep."

Turning the public-opinion tide in Colorado is particularly tricky right now given the run-up to the trial of Aurora theater killer James Holmes. "There's a challenge there," Woodliff-Stanley admits. "But the fact is, the underlying arguments aren't really any different in that case than they are in any other case. The death penalty still doesn't bring anyone back who's been lost, it doesn't deter crime, and by keeping cases like that in the news, we might be inspiring copycat crimes that make us less safe rather than more safe."

Look below to see a 9News report about yesterday's event, and the aforementioned white paper.

Misplaced Priorities White Paper

More from our Prison Life archive: "Photos: Ten executions gone horribly wrong on World Day to End the Death Penalty."


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