Colorado Death Penalty Abolished, Men on Death Row Given Life

Tim Ricard's wife, Mary, was murdered in 2012 while working as a Colorado corrections officer. He supported the repeal.
Tim Ricard's wife, Mary, was murdered in 2012 while working as a Colorado corrections officer. He supported the repeal. Courtesy of Phil Cherner
After decades of advocacy work by abolitionists, Colorado has finally abolished its death penalty.

"For more than twenty years, victims’ family members, exonerees, corrections officers, defense attorneys, prosecutors, faith leaders and Coloradans across the state have worked relentlessly to say: Do not kill in my name. Today, the governor showed he was listening. In a society that aspires to be moral and just, there is no room for the death penalty. Colorado is on the right side of history," says Helen Griffiths, who oversaw the ACLU of Colorado's lobbying campaign against the death penalty.

Today, March 23, Governor Jared Polis signed the bill abolishing the death penalty, making Colorado the 22nd state to do so, and also commuted the sentences of the three men on death row in Colorado.

“Commutations are typically granted to reflect evidence of extraordinary change in the offender. That is not why I am commuting these sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Rather, the commutations of these despicable and guilty individuals are consistent with the abolition of the death penalty in the State of Colorado, and consistent with the recognition that the death penalty cannot be, and never has been, administered equitably in the State of Colorado,” Polis said in a statement.

One of the men on death row, Nathan Dunlap, is currently locked up for the Chuck E. Cheese shootings in Aurora in 1993, when he killed four people. And Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray, the other two now getting off death row, were handed death sentences for killing Javad Marshall Fields, the son of Senator Rhonda Fields, and his fiancée, Vivian Wolfe, in 2005.

The abolition of the death penalty has been a hot topic at the Colorado Legislature for years. This session's proposal was the sixth repeal bill since 2007.

Last year, Fields, a Democrat from Aurora, was successful in preventing the repeal proposal from moving through the legislature. Fields argued that the introduction of the bill was rushed, and that she and other family members of victims hadn't been notified about the repeal effort soon enough. Citing Fields's criticism, several Democratic senators stayed on the fence about the bill, and it failed as a result.

This year, more Republicans, including one who was a prime sponsor, supported the bill, and it passed both chambers before landing on the governor's desk. In recent months, Polis had been noncommital regarding commuting the sentences of the three men on death row; he announced his commutation decision as he signed the bill into law today.

There are a few death-penalty or potential death-penalty cases on the docket in Colorado right now, since the defendants were charged before the repeal bill was passed. But if a prosecutor chooses to continue down that path, it will be difficult, according to Griffiths.

"It's one thing to have it repealed going forward, but to clear death row sends a strong message that there will no longer be executions in Colorado," she says.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.