Death Penalty Repeal Bill Passes First Legislative Hurdle

Death Penalty Repeal Bill Passes First Legislative Hurdle
Flickr/Kurt Morrow
A bill that would abolish the death penalty in Colorado passed its first legislative hurdle Wednesday, March 6, when the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 3-2, along party lines, in favor of it.

During the hearing, those in favor of Senate Bill 182, introduced by Democratic senators Julie Gonzales and Angela Williams, cited morals, race and economics as reasons to repeal the death penalty.

"We are better than killing our own citizens," said Doug Wilson, who served as a public defender in Colorado for twelve years and has represented around 35 clients in death-penalty cases.

To highlight the racial argument against the death penalty, Wilson and others pointed to the fact that all three individuals currently on death row in Colorado are black men.

They also argued that trials involving the death penalty and the inevitable appellate court trials cost much more than a trial involving a potential sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

The district attorneys of both Denver and Boulder testified in support of the bill. "The criminal justice system is not perfect," said Boulder District Attorney Michael Dougherty, alluding to the fact that innocent people sometimes end up on death row.

But those in favor of maintaining the death penalty also came out swinging.

Four Colorado district attorneys asserted that repealing the death penalty would be an insult to the families of murder victims.

"All you will have done is to cheapen the extraordinary evil crimes that take place here," said George Brauchler, district attorney for the 18th judicial district.

Perhaps the most emotional testimony in favor of maintaining the death penalty came from Maisha Fields, whose brother Javad Marshall-Fields and his fiancée, Vivian Wolfe, were murdered by Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray in 2005, just weeks before Marshall-Fields was set to testify against them regarding another homicide. Both Owens and Ray are currently on death row for these crimes.

"We have real pain, and our trauma is not for sale for your political game and propaganda," a teary-eyed Fields said to the bill's supporters on the committee. During her testimony, Fields was flanked by photos of her late brother. Fields's mother, Democratic state senator Rhonda Fields, also wants to keep the death penalty in Colorado.

Bobby Stephens, the lone survivor of the Chuck E. Cheese massacre in Aurora in 1993, spoke about the incident during which Nathan Dunlap, now on death row, shot him in the face and killed four other employees there.

"It impacted the majority of my life. His decisions that night have forever followed me. Every time I do manage to put this behind me, something like today’s bill, for example, will bring everything back up and stir everything back up," Stephens said. Former governor John Hickenlooper granted a reprieve for Dunlap in 2013 to stave off his execution.

The majority of opponents of the bill who testified said that they'd like to see the matter be decided not in the legislature, but by the people of Colorado through a ballot initiative. According to a 2015 survey, 63 percent of poll respondents supported executing Aurora theater shooter James Holmes, while only 32 percent preferred life in prison without the possibility of parole.

"If [the people of] Colorado want to abolish the death penalty, you won’t hear about it from me. But this feels far more rushed and far more political than if we were to send it to the people," said Brauchler.

The bill's supporters contend that deciding on the death penalty is a matter better suited for the legislature, not the masses. "I think this one in particular [shouldn't be decided through the ballot] because it’s complex and raises constitutional issues," says Denise Maes, public policy director at ACLU of Colorado. "I don’t think we should ever have constitutional rights subject to a popular vote."

Representatives Adrienne Benavidez and Jeni James Arndt are the House co-sponsors for Senate Bill 182, which still needs approval from both the Senate and the House before landing on Governor Jared Polis's desk. The governor will commute the sentences of those currently on death row in Colorado if the bill passes, according to Colorado Public Radio.

Colorado rarely executes those convicted for particularly heinous murders. In fact, the state has executed just one person in the past 52 years.

And by repealing the death penalty, Colorado would join twenty other states that have already removed it as a sentencing option.
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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.