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Death penalty battle heats up at the State Capitol

In more than eight hours of emotional testimony that stretched well into the evening, activists and faith groups seeking to abolish the death penalty in Colorado squared off against prosecutors and other backers of the ultimate punishment yesterday -- with family members of homicide victims speaking out on both sides, calling the process of execution a "nightmare" and a "tremendous burden" for victims' families, but also essential to the pursuit of justice.

At issue is House Bill 13-1264, an effort to repeal capital punishment in the state, sponsored by representatives Claire Levy of Boulder and Jovan Melton of Aurora and now under review by the House Judiciary Committee. Democratic lawmakers came within one vote of euthanizing Colorado's largely moribund death penalty four years ago and believe they now have the momentum to succeed, despite last summer's Aurora theater shootings and other high-profile rampages that have reignited debate over capital punishment. Six states have abolished the death penalty in the last six years, including Maryland's action last week, bringing to seventeen the number of states that have banned the practice.

Although the death penalty has been imposed in seventeen cases since it was reinstated in Colorado in 1978, it's only been carried out once -- against Gary Davis in 1997. Levy's opening remarks focused on the millions spent by the state prosecuting and defending capital cases through decades of appeals, the emotional toll on victims' families, and the risk of executing an innocent defendant. (Nationally, 142 inmates sentenced to death have been exonerated over the past four decades, and in 2011, former Governor Bill Ritter issued a posthumous pardon for Colorado's own Joe Arridy, a mentally impaired man wrongfully convicted and executed in the 1930s.)

"Will Colorado have executed someone the Supreme Court will one day say should not have been executed?" Levy asked.

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Melton cited studies that suggest the death penalty doesn't deter crime and is applied in a racially biased way. All three of the men currently on Colorado's death row -- Nathan Dunlap, Robert Ray and Sir Mario Owens -- are African-Americans from his district, Melton pointed out.

In the hours of riveting testimony about the bill that followed, both sides brought out their big guns, starting with Bob Autobee, whose son, Eric, was murdered by inmate Edward Montour at the Limon prison in 2002. Autobee and his wife renounced the effort to execute Montour last year after a decade of frustrating delays and setbacks. "The system doesn't really work," Autobee told the committee. "It has been a nightmare.... Our case is the poster child for this."

Other family members of homicide victims talked about the arbitrary nature of prosecutors' decision to pursue the death penalty or not, the fear of going through endless appeals if the case went capital -- and suggested the vast sums spent on the state's death process could be better applied to victim services and cold cases.

Continue for more about the death penalty battle at the State Capitol. One particularly eloquent proponent of the bill was Randy Steidl, who spent more than a decade on death row in Illinois before exoneration. During that time, he watched a dozen men go to their deaths with eerie calm. He finally realized that they preferred obliteration to serving life without parole. "It was an early release after fifteen or twenty years in a cage," he explained.

But defenders of the death penalty had plenty of supporters at the Capitol, too. Maisha Pollard, the sister of murder victim Javad Marshall-Fields, called the bill "insensitive" and "erroneous." Two of the current death-row residents, Ray and Owens, were convicted of killing her brother and his fiancee, Vivian Wolfe, in 2005; while Levy's bill only applies to crimes committed after July 1 of this year, Pollard expressed concern that the abolition measure could help strengthen clemency pleas for Ray and Owens.

"They were found guilty, not because they were black, not because of their age, but because of their decision to commit murder," Pollard said. "Do not put justice for my brother at risk."

Pollard's mother, Representative Rhonda Fields, has also called the repeal effort "an insult to crime victims." Although bill co-sponsor Melton was once her campaign manager, Fields is pushing an alternate bill that would put the death penalty question to a vote of the people.

Republicans groused that the bill was slipped into committee with little advance notice. Even so, prosecutors eager to preserve the lethal option were on hand to weigh in. Eighteenth Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler, whose office put all three death-row residents in their place and is now pursuing potential capital cases against Montour for the Autobee killing and James Holmes, the suspect in the Aurora shooting, insisted that going capital is the only way to deal with the "worst of the worst." In addition, Denver DA Mitch Morrissey called the specter of execution an important bargaining chip in getting killers to turn over the bodies of their victims. Boulder DA Stan Garnett, though, described the death penalty as a waste of resources.

The hearing ended with a vote on the bill postponed until later in the session.

More from our Prison Life archive: "Bob Autobee 'drops out' of death penalty battle for son's killer, Edward Montour."

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