Colorado Lawmakers Introduce Death Penalty Repeal Bill; Passage Likely

Today, January 14, lawmakers will introduce a bill that would repeal the death penalty.
Today, January 14, lawmakers will introduce a bill that would repeal the death penalty. iStock/AVNphotolab
On January 14, Democratic Senator Julie Gonzales and other state lawmakers introduced a bill that would repeal the death penalty in Colorado.

A six-month campaign in support of the bill, spearheaded by the ACLU of Colorado, was designed to show that although family members of victims are often the most prominent voices in favor of maintaining the death penalty, there are also plenty who support abolition.

"Our focus is on highlighting all victims' families. Several of them were hurt by the inability to pass repeal last year. We're trying to lift up those voices since they are not elected," Helen Griffiths, who is leading the ACLU of Colorado's death-penalty repeal advocacy work, told Westword when she and her colleagues began the campaign in June 2019.

"The strongest motivation for me to oppose the death penalty is, as a Christian, I think it totally violates my Christian faith to support the death penalty," says Gail Rice, whose brother, Denver police officer Bruce VanderJagt, was murdered by a skinhead following a botched robbery in 1997. That year was, coincidentally, the last time Colorado executed someone on death row.

The ACLU campaign's early start and focus on the family members of victims seem to have worked: Last week, the Denver Post reported that there will be enough votes in the Senate to pass the bill, and House Democrats say they have enough votes in that chamber, as well. The bill is likely to be discussed in a committee hearing in the coming weeks.

This is the sixth time in about a dozen years that lawmakers have introduced a repeal bill.

Last session, the similar bill failed after Senator Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat, criticized how quickly the bill was rolled out. Fields's son, Javad Marshall Fields, and his fiancĂ©e, Vivian Wolfe, were killed in 2005 by two of the three men who are currently on death row in Colorado. Fields said she was never brought into conversations about a potential death-penalty repeal bill. Another prominent Democrat, Representative Tom Sullivan of Aurora, also spoke last session in favor of keeping the death penalty. Sullivan's son, Alex, was killed in 2012 in the Aurora theater shooting. Fields and Sullivan still oppose repealing the death penalty.

Following the bill's failure last session, lawmakers went back to the table. "I honestly feel that it was better for us to start over and do this process right, Gonzales told Westword last April about the rushed roll-out of the bill.

On January 14, the ACLU of Colorado brought advocates and family members of murder victims to the offices of those senators who were on the fence about a repeal bill last session.

"We're spending entirely too much money in the trial process," Sharletta Evans, whose three-year-old son, Casson, was killed by teenagers in a drive-by shooting 24 years ago in Aurora, told one of Aurora Senator Nancy Todd's aides this morning. (Todd wasn't in her office at the time.)

Advocates also visited Senator Jessie Danielson of Wheat Ridge, who has not publicly revealed how she will vote on the repeal bill this session, and the offices of Tammy Story of Conifer and Joann Ginal of Fort Collins, previously on-the-fence Democratic senators who recently told the Denver Post that they plan to vote in favor of this session's repeal bill.

Even with Todd and Danielson remaining on the fence, abolition advocates are optimistic now that two Republican senators, Owen Hill and Jack Tate, have joined their Republican colleague Kevin Priola in supporting the repeal bill. Tate, who hails from Centennial, is a primary sponsor of the bill.

Colorado would become the 22nd state to repeal the death penalty. Governor Jared Polis said last year that he planned to commute the sentences of the three men on death row if a repeal bill were to pass.
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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.