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Gary Lee Davis: Colorado's last volunteer for the death penalty

This week's feature, "The Happiest Man on Death Row," delves into Colorado's execution of Joe Arridy, a man with an IQ of 46, for a murder he almost certainly didn't commit. It happened in the 1930s, when the state's gas chamber was kept busy with a string of customers. But times are different now, and executions are a lot harder to come by in these parts.

Even though prosecutors are expected to seek the death penalty for accused Aurora theater shooter James Holmes, Colorado has only managed one execution in more than forty years -- and the subject, Gary Lee Davis, practically volunteered for the job.

What's changed since the days of Joe Arridy that's made it so difficult for the state to execute those convicted of capital crimes? Part of the answer has to do with a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions dating back to the early 1970s, which have redefined the notion of "cruel and unusual punishment" and greatly expanded the appeals process for condemned men and women nationwide.

But other states (notably Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and some other purveyors of southern justice) still have a functional death machine, while Colorado has gone a different direction. One reason for that is its juries; folks might talk about being in favor of lethal injection at a cocktail party, but prosecutors know those same people somehow freeze up in the jury box when asked to dispense the ultimate penalty. In the 1990s, the state tried to take the decision out of the hands of juries and leave it up to a three-judge panel, but that scheme was ultimately declared unconstitutional.

Two angles on Gary Lee Davis.
Two angles on Gary Lee Davis.

Another factor is Colorado's public defender system -- particularly its appellate division. It's considered the gold standard among such systems across the country, relentless and well-financed and good at battling death-penalty cases, to the point that Arapahoe County District Attorney Carol Chambers has complained the defense bar in Colorado makes the death penalty "many times more expensive than it needs to be."

With the deck stacked against actual executions being carried out without years of delay and millions in legal costs, it's no wonder that no less an authority than Sister Helen Prejean describes Colorado as "not a serious killing state." The only killing the state has managed in the past four decades is what Prejean calls the "consensual execution" of Gary Davis in 1997.

Continue to read more about Gary Lee Davis and the death penalty.  

With the aid of his wife, Davis had committed a depraved and horrible crime -- the 1986 kidnapping, rape and sexual assault of 32-year-old Virginia May. He admitted to committing as many as fifteen other rapes -- though his bizarre stories about the sources of his rage and violence changed over time. Davis sabotaged his own defense and shortcut the appeals process, preferring lethal injection to a life spent in solitary confinement. Yet it still took more than a decade for him to pay for his crime.

During that time, another member of Colorado's death row died of natural causes, cheating the executioner. And Nathan Dunlap arrived on death row for killing four people in a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in Aurora in 1993.

Nearly twenty years later, Dunlap is still there. His appeals are just about exhausted. Not so the other condemned men in Colorado's prison system, Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray; the allegations of inadequate counsel, prosecution misconduct and other ethical quandaries surrounding their trials ought to give the courts a workout for years to come.

In short, it's hard to get the death penalty in Colorado -- and even harder to get a willing volunteer. Families hoping to see the death penalty imposed on the Aurora theater shooter may have to get used to the idea of seeing justice delayed not just years, but decades.

More from our Prison Life archive: "Eddie Ives's botched execution and replacing the noose with the gas chamber."


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