Colorado lawmakers are moving toward repealing the death penalty this legislative session. The bill that would abolish capital punishment has passed out of a Senate committee and will now work its way through the Senate and House.
Although the death penalty is allowed in Colorado, the state isn't particularly trigger-happy with the sentence: Only one person has been executed in the last fifty-plus years, and only three people are currently on death row. Governor Jared Polis has indicated that he would grant them life sentences without the possibility of parole if the repeal passes.
The bill is already getting pushback from both sides of the aisle. Senator Rhonda Fields and Representative Tom Sullivan, both Democrats, strongly oppose the bill. Fields's son was killed by two men currently on death row, and Sullivan's son was killed by James Holmes in the Aurora theater shooting.
Still, the bill's sponsors and co-signers are almost all Democrats. There is one exception, however: Republican Senator Kevin Priola. We asked Priola, who has supported past legislative efforts to repeal the death penalty, to elaborate on his support of the bill.
Westword: Why are you signing on to this bill?
Kevin Priola: Because I’m a practicing Catholic, and I believe being pro-life is important in all you do, and this is part of being pro-life and what the church teaches. I also have four kids, by the way.
My wife and I are pro-life in how we live our lives.
What other arguments persuade you most?
Everything from the cost to the racial component. Although we have a relatively low African-American population, it is disproportionately represented on death row in this state.
And studies have proven that [the death penalty is] not a deterrent. Quite honestly, I think it’s appalling that we give the power of life and death to the State of Colorado.
What about the cost?
I believe the fiscal note on the prior bills is that it would save a sizable amount of money. Because of the appeals, it takes decades to actually get to the point where someone is put to death.
I would just say the things I’ve already said to you. There are a number of reasons, besides for your religious faith, to remove it, and very few arguments to keep it.
I understand they’ve gone through a difficult and painful situation. But spending millions of dollars and decades of people on death row is not going change the outcome of the heinous thing that happened to their family.
A lot of opponents to this bill say it should go to a referendum. Why not do that?
Someone can carry petitions and put on the ballot every year for the next hundred years to re-institute the death penalty. This does not stop that from happening.
But why do this in the legislature? Why not do it through a ballot initiative?
You’ll have to talk to Senator Williams, the main sponsor, about that.
As a Republican, are you worried about how this may alienate you from your colleagues or constituents?
One of the reasons I’m a Republican is because we’re pro-life and we respect lives.
So you're not worried?
No, I mean, I’ve been pro-life. My website has said the same thing for twelve years. I don’t see any reason someone should be upset at me for something I’ve run on for five elections.
Look at statements for life issues on my website. They've stayed the same for twelve years.
Do you know of any other Republicans who will sign on?
I know there have been other discussions with other folks. At this point, probably not, but there might be other Republican votes. I don’t know exactly where they’ll be or if they've changed their mind or changed their mind back.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
What does your support for this bill say about bipartisanship?
I’ve probably had, over the years, about 20,000 conversations with people knocking on doors. In 2016, I probably had 5.000 or more personal conversations. Most voters in the state of Colorado send us down there to make decisions and work on issues.
There are going to be things that we fight over, but they’re kinda sick and tired of us fighting over things that don’t necessarily need to be fought over.
This is a very contentious issue, but I honestly don’t think it’s that contentious of an issue. If you look at it from a number of facts and the religious perspective, it’s an easy vote to repeal. Twenty other states have repealed it, and most of the world does not have the death penalty.