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Will Governor Polis Offer Clemency to Three Men on Death Row?

Jared Polis will have to decide whether to grant clemency for the three men on death row.
Jared Polis will have to decide whether to grant clemency for the three men on death row.
Evan Semón

Colorado is now just a governor's signature away from becoming the 22nd state in the country to abolish the death penalty.

Today, February 26, a majority of the Colorado House of Representatives voted in favor of repealing the death penalty. The vote marked the last legislative hurdle for the repeal bill, which will now go to the desk of Governor Jared Polis, who has indicated that he'll sign the bill.

If he does sign it, the death penalty will no longer be a sentencing option for criminal charges filed after July 1. But that doesn't mean that the three men currently sitting on Colorado's death row will have their sentences altered.

The death sentences for Nathan Dunlap, Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray will remain in place unless and until Polis grants them clemency, which would turn their death sentences into life without parole.

Polis has been noncommital on the clemency issue thus far.

"There are currently no clemency requests involving the death penalty before the Governor. All clemency requests are weighty decisions that the Governor will judge on their individual merits. If the legislature repeals the death penalty, that is one of many factors he would consider along with all of the facts surrounding the case," Conor Cahill, a spokesperson for the governor, told Westword before the latest House action.

During an interview last year, however, Polis implied that he would grant the three men clemency.

“If the state, Republicans and Democrats, were to say, and I were to sign, a bill that said we no longer have the death penalty in Colorado...I would certainly take that as a strong indication that those who are currently on death row should have their sentences commuted to life in prison,” Polis told Colorado Public Radio's Ryan Warner in February 2019.

When Polis receives the inevitable clemency requests from the three individuals on death row, the death-penalty debate in Colorado will reignite. That's because Owens and Ray murdered Javad Marshall Fields and his fiancée, Vivian Wolfe, in 2005: Marshall Fields was the son of now-Senator Rhonda Fields, a Democrat who has been one of the strongest opponents of repealing the death penalty in Colorado.

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But even with the potential for more emotional debate on the horizon, death penalty abolition advocates remain hopeful that Polis will grant the three men clemency.

"I think he'll do the right thing," says Helen Griffiths, who oversaw the ACLU of Colorado's lobbying campaign against the death penalty this past year.

No state has repealed the death penalty and then gone on to execute people, she notes, adding that she doesn't expect Polis to be an outlier on the issue.

"That wouldn't make sense because our legislature has said that they don't condone executions," Griffiths says. "That's a really strong signal to the governor that you shouldn't kill people, no matter what they've done."

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