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Can abolishing the death penalty help solve cold cases?

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On Friday, a bill to abolish the death penalty and redirect those funds toward investigating unsolved murders passed the House Appropriations Committee by an 8-4 vote. The next step is the House floor. That's where a 2007 version of the bill was narrowly defeated. Proponents, led by the non-profit Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons, are thus ramping up their lobbying efforts this week in hopes of a different outcome.

Howard Morton -- FOHVAMP founder and executive director, and one of the key speakers at a press conference yesterday -- has for years been calling on the state to create a full-time, specially trained team of investigators to tackle cold homicide cases. Last year, his organization petitioned 108 municipalities to come up with the total number of unsolved murder cases in the state: 1,250. That number has since climbed to more than 1,400. A cold-case team - spurred by a less controversial FOHVAMP-backed bill in 2007 - has been created at CBI, but so far it only has enough money to staff one analyst, who maintains a cold case database. Repealing the death penalty would free up money (an estimated $2 million annually at the state level, and another $2.5 million locally, even though Colorado has only executed one person in the last thirty years) to fund a true team of investigators, Morton says.

At yesterday's event, Morton was joined by a coalition that included Bishop James Conely of the Archdiocese of Denver, Temple Emmanuel Senior Rabbi Steven Foster, ACLU Legal Director Mark Silverstein and representatives of Amnesty International USA, Coloradans Against the Death Penalty, the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, Hunger for Justice, Colorado Council of Churches and Colorado CURE. They argued that the death penalty does not deter violent crime and said abolishing capital punishment in Colorado was both the moral and fiscally responsible thing to do, noting that the bill was part of a national trend away from capital punishment. New Mexico recently replaced the death penalty with life in prison with the possibility of parole, becoming the fifteenth state to abolish executions.

Morton says his goal is to get the bill on the Governor's desk. Whether or not former district attorney Bill Ritter would sign the bill - which is strongly opposed by Attorney General John Suthers and district attorneys - is another question. "If we get it to the Governor's desk, we've met our objective - this time," Morton says. "And I think we're going to get further than we did the time before. We've got a better organized association of groups, which you saw here... We're better at it this time. We didn't know the ropes before."

Rep. Paul Weissmann, the bill's sponsor, now has more influence as House Majority Leader. In addition, the new cold-case database has also been a lobbying tool. Each legislator Morton meets with gets a list with the names and dates of every unsolved murder victim in his or her district, and often a family member of one of those people is also present at the meeting. "We've had as high as 154 in a district and as few as five, but everyone we've talked to has some unsolved murders in their district," Morton says. "What we tell them, what we want them to understand, is that you've got killers loose in your district who are doing other crimes and other killings, and we think you ought to be concerned enough about that to vote for this bill."

Another advantage Morton didn't have last time is Debra Callihan, the wife of former lieutenant governor Mike Callihan. She's also the cousin of Sid Wells, whose 1983 Boulder murder is still unsolved -- and she's been volunteering her time to lobby for the bill, driving to Denver every week from the farm where she cares for her 95-year-old grandfather and staying in a hotel three nights, Morton says.

"For 25 and a half years, those of us that were relatives or loved ones of Sid Wells could do nothing except commiserate with his family over and over and over," Callihan says. "I have some political background, a little bit of lobbying experience. I thought maybe this was a way something good could come out of his death, as hard a thing as that is to imagine."

She says the families of people like Sid are given the same reason again and again when asked why their cases aren't being investigated: lack of resources. "Let's solve that problem."

At the press conference, in response to a survey that showed 63 percent of Colorado voters support repealing the death penalty and using the money to investigate unsolved murders, Morton was asked why he doesn't try for a ballot initiative.

He said ballot initiatives require a tremendous amount of energy and commitment, and that the members of his organization are essentially "broken people."

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