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Following Emotional Testimony, Senate Appears Set to Approve Death Penalty Repeal

Senators Jack Tate and Julie Gonzales during the Senate hearing.EXPAND
Senators Jack Tate and Julie Gonzales during the Senate hearing.
Phil Cherner

Following decades of work by abolitionists, politicians and family members of murder victims, the death penalty in Colorado appears to be on its way out.

On Thursday, January 30, a majority of the Colorado Senate voted for a death penalty repeal bill; the chamber will vote today on a third reading of the bill. After that, it will go over to the House, which is expected to pass the legislation, and then on to the desk of Governor Jared Polis for his signature.

"So long as the death penalty remains on the books, we will fail to rise to our duties of office," Senator Angela Williams, a Denver Democrat and one of the bill's sponsors, said at the January 30 Senate hearing.

Republican senators, together with Democrat Senator Rhonda Fields, argued against repeal.

"I oppose the repeal of the death penalty because it’s hard for us to project what the next crime is going to be like, but we’re already telegraphing the same penalty for every single crime. That is not justice," said Fields, whose son and his fiancée were killed by two of the three men currently on death row. "We are inspiring the next mass shooter if we take away this option for prosecutors."

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Fields was successful last year in preventing a death penalty repeal bill from moving through the legislature. The Aurora senator argued that the rollout of the bill was rushed and that she and other family members of victims weren't notified about the repeal effort soon enough. Following her lead, a handful of Democrats declined to support the legislation. Although the 2019 bill made it out of committee, sponsors weren't sure if they'd have enough votes in the Senate and decided to table it until 2020.

The 2020 bill, which is the sixth repeal bill since 2007, added two more Republican sponsors. Senator Jessie Danielson of Wheat Ridge, who did not publicly say whether she supported the bill last year, voted against repeal this time around.

"This is a terrible thing to have to consider. There is no good vote here," Danielson said.

As the Senate hearing unfolded, Representative Dave Williams, a Republican from El Paso County, said he might try to stop the bill from moving through the House.

"I will debate. I will filibuster. I will have the bills read at length. This sham of a process will not stand. House Democrats better pray that this bill does not reach the House," Williams wrote to Westword in a statement.

But Representative Adrienne Benavidez, a Democrat and one of the prime sponsors in the House, says she's "pretty certain" the votes are there for the bill's passage in that chamber. Benavidez says Williams's filibuster would "just makes for a longer time on the floor."

The three men on death row in Colorado, which hasn't executed anyone since 1997, will not be directly affected by this bill, as it only deals with those charged from July 2020 onward.

In an interview with Colorado Public Radio last year, Governor Polis strongly indicated that he would grant the three men clemency.

“If the state, Republicans and Democrats, were to say, and I were to sign, a bill that said we no longer have the death penalty in Colorado … I would certainly take that as a strong indication that those who are currently on death row should have their sentences commuted to life in prison,” Polis told CPR's Ryan Warner.

But the governor has since softened that initial stance.

"There are currently no clemency requests involving the death penalty before the Governor. All clemency requests are weighty decisions that the Governor will judge on their individual merits. If the legislature repeals the death penalty, that is one of many factors he would consider along with all of the facts surrounding the case," Conor Cahill, a spokesperson for the governor, writes to Westword in a statement.

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