Crime

Gary Lee Davis: Colorado's last volunteer for the death penalty

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Even though prosecutors are expected to seek the death penalty for accused Aurora theater shooter James Holmes, Colorado has only managed one execution in more than forty years — and the subject, Gary Lee Davis, practically volunteered for the job.

What's changed since the days of Joe Arridy that's made it so difficult for the state to execute those convicted of capital crimes? Part of the answer has to do with a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions dating back to the early 1970s, which have redefined the notion of "cruel and unusual punishment" and greatly expanded the appeals process for condemned men and women nationwide.

But other states (notably Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and some other purveyors of southern justice) still have a functional death machine, while Colorado has gone a different direction. One reason for that is its juries; folks might talk about being in favor of lethal injection at a cocktail party, but prosecutors know those same people somehow freeze up in the jury box when asked to dispense the ultimate penalty. In the 1990s, the state tried to take the decision out of the hands of juries and leave it up to a three-judge panel, but that scheme was ultimately declared unconstitutional.

Another factor is Colorado's public defender system — particularly its appellate division. It's considered the gold standard among such systems across the country, relentless and well-financed and good at battling death-penalty cases, to the point that Arapahoe County District Attorney Carol Chambers has complained the defense bar in Colorado makes the death penalty "many times more expensive than it needs to be."

With the deck stacked against actual executions being carried out without years of delay and millions in legal costs, it's no wonder that no less an authority than Sister Helen Prejean describes Colorado as "not a serious killing state." The only killing the state has managed in the past four decades is what Prejean calls the "consensual execution" of Gary Davis in 1997.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast