In the hours leading up to a historic vote on the floor of the Colorado General Assembly, State Rep. Jonathan Singer thought of his conversation with murder victims’ family members and their varying positions on whether the death penalty served as justice.
On Wednesday, Singer was one of 38 to cast a vote in favor of the death penalty’s repeal. There were 27 who opposed it. Now, the death penalty is on track to be abolished and awaits final approval from Gov. Jared Polis, who has indicated in prior reports he intends to sign the bill into law.
“It was a tough personal vote for a lot of people including myself, but at the end of the day I’m glad we did it,” Singer said.
While some lawmakers showed their opposition to the repeal, citing concerns for the victims of violent crime and their families, Boulder County experts believe nixing the death penalty could lead to stronger criminal justice system. Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty has been an ardent supporter of putting an end to death penalty, calling it a costly a “highly litigious” process.
“I’m very pleased that the death penalty is on track to be repealed,” Dougherty said. “Our office supported the repeal effort last year and this year. We worked closely with the sponsors of the bill and testimony in the house last year and this year both.”
Dougherty said the death penalty has been used infrequently in Colorado and he believes life without parole provides a “stable, just and appropriate punishment.”
“I have worked with murder victims my entire career,” Dougherty said. “I’ve seen the impact it has on families and the community. I truly respect that some people have or that some believe it is appropriate. I understand that reaction, but I don’t share that view.”
Sen. Rhonda Fields (D-Aurora) and Rep. Tom Sullivan (D-Aurora), expressed justice for their loved ones was being denied, according to Singer’s account of debate testimony. Fields son and his fiancee were murderer in 2005. His killers are among those on death row. Sullivan’s son was murdered by James Holmes in the Aurora movie theater shooting. Holmes was not sentenced to death.
Dougherty said he doesn’t believe the death penalty is a deterrent against violent crime.
“In the last 25 years Colorado has had the death penalty, murder rate has gone up and down. It’s not tied to death penalty. I’m unaware of any case where murder was committed based on whether that penalty existed.
With the possibility of a wrongful conviction, Dougherty said the death penalty poses irreversible consequences.
Christian Gardner-Wood, the director of Community Protection and Legislative Affairs at the Boulder County DA’s office, echoed this. Gardner-Wood was among those who argued for the death penalty’s repeal, when the bill was before the Senate Judiciary Committee in January. While Gardner-Wood said he can’t recall an innocent person put to death in Colorado, the state does have examples of people who were falsely accused of serious crimes.
Wood and Dougherty both cited the case of Robert Dewey, who was wrongfully convicted of rape and murder following the 1994 death of 19-year-old Jacie Taylor. He was sentenced to life without parole. It took the justice system 18 years to correct the mistake. Dewey was exonerated in 2012.
Nationwide, Dougherty said evidence shows racially-biased motivations for sentencing people to death. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, a person’s skin color plays a “crucial” and “unacceptable” role in whether a person receives the death penalty.
The death penalty was reinstated in 1974. Since 1976, Colorado has put one person to death, according to the state’s Death Penalty Information Center. According to Dougherty, since 2001 there have been 982 people in Colorado’s prisons incarcerated without the possibility of parole.
The state has three people on death row: Robert Ray, who ordered the killing of Fields’ loved ones Javad Marshall-Fields and Vivian Wolfe; Sir Mario Owens, who followed Ray’s orders to kill Marshall-Fields and Wolfe according to the state; and Nathan Dunlap, who was put on death row after he killed four people at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant on Dec. 14, 1993. Among Dunlap’s defense representatives is Madeline Cohen, a Boulder-based attorney.
“While I am, as I said in the letter Speaker KC Becker read on the House floor, very glad Colorado is abolishing the death penalty, I don’t have a statement to make at this time about its possible impact on my client’s case,” Cohen said in an email Friday.
For his part, Singer said he hopes the state can use the money spent on death penalty prosecution to better understand the minds of killers and hopefully prevent future tragedy.
“I hope this will put us on a path to focus our efforts on solving more crimes with our limited resources and getting faster closure for other crime victims,” he said.