COVID-19: Polis on Accused Killer Allegedly Released Early Over Virus

Colorado Governor Jared Polis in a video created for the Colorado School of Mines 2020 graduation.
Colorado Governor Jared Polis in a video created for the Colorado School of Mines 2020 graduation. YouTube
During a May 15 press conference regarding COVID-19, Governor Jared Polis addressed a growing controversy about the state's policy of reducing prison populations to guard against outbreaks in detention centers: Cornelius Haney, forty, who was set free several months ahead of schedule, is accused of having killed 21-year-old Heather Perry in a Denver alley on May 9.

"That particular inmate has been eligible for parole since 2017 and would have had mandatory parole granted in August," Polis explained. "Nobody should be released simply because of COVID-19. ... No prisoner who's a danger to society should be released, and nobody on the parole board thought he would do what he allegedly did."

Polis stressed that members of the parole board have a "tough job, and they couldn't have held that person much longer than they did. ... We need to respect the people who make these decisions every day. They're doing their best to make Colorado safe."

This subject contrasted sharply with the theme of Polis's prepared remarks. After recapping his midweek visit to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Donald Trump, he focused on an event scheduled for 7 p.m. today, when Coloradans are asked to don masks and spend a moment of silence in honor of the more than 1,000 people who have died from the novel coronavirus in Colorado to date. The State Capitol and many other municipal buildings in Colorado will be bathed in red light symbolic of the fatalities.

"Every person we've lost in this horrible pandemic has a story and a community of loved ones," Polis pointed out. "It's been tough, because families haven't been able to have funerals or celebrations of life because the events themselves would have been very dangerous for those who attended them...and those who passed away from COVID-19 in hospitals were unable to be visited by loved ones in their final weeks." As a result, he encouraged everyone to "take a moment to reflect this evening and remember why we need to do our part."

Polis also referenced Peace Officers Memorial Day, for which he ordered all flags in the state to fly at half mast as a salute to law enforcement officers who've perished in the line of duty, and complimented workers at senior-care facilities for their bravery on the front lines of the crisis.

Following his advocacy for an adjustment in the Paycheck Protection Program to include ski areas and a mention of a $1 million biomedical grant from the Boettcher Foundation, Polis invited questions from journalists. covering the gathering in person and remotely.

Among the topics he was asked to address were questions about the accuracy of COVID-19 death counts, based on claims from the Montezuma County coroner that a man with the virus had actually died from alcohol-related causes and therefore shouldn't have been included in the state's pandemic data. Polis said that even though the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requires the state to report any death of an individual who's tested positive for the virus, he feels there should be a differentiation between individuals who died with COVID-19 and people who died from it. He also argued that the determinations of physicians and medical examiners about causes of death shouldn't be "second-guessed by someone behind a desk."

Other issues were less fiery. Polis recapped compliments about Colorado's progress in contact tracing from White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx; reminded residents with COVID-19 symptoms that they can now get free testing at 32 sites across the state; estimated that between 5,000 and 10,000 tests per day will likely take place through May; and took a glancing blow at Trump's hope for negative interest rates in the future. "He even indicated that he's dreamed his whole life" about such rates, Polis said. "But he based his business empire on debt, so that's understandable. He likes debt."

Meanwhile, Polis said he'll be donating his entire salary to the pandemic fight from the first day an emergency was announced in Colorado to the time when the declaration is lifted — a generous move, but one that is unlikely to quiet the furor brewing on social media over the accusations against Cornelius Haney. 
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts