Death penalty repeal introduced to Colorado legislature

Illustration: Taylor “Kat” Goodman · The Sentry


Illustration: Taylor “Kat” Goodman · The Sentry
Battle against capital punishment continues

Led by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado (ACLU), the effort to repeal the death penalty in Colorado has been long and tenuous. New legislature entered the Colorado General Assembly in early January 2020 aims to repeal capital punishment. 

Colorado was one of the first states to end the death penalty in 1897, though it was later reinstated in 1901. Since 1977, capital punishment has only been used once in Colorado. In 2013, then-Governor John Hickenlooper effectively froze Colorado’s death penalty, though it is technically still a legal sentencing option. 

Currently, three people are awaiting execution on death row in Colorado. Nathan Dunlap was convicted and sentenced to death for murdering four people at a Chuck E. Cheese in 1993. Dunlap was granted a temporary reprieve in 2013 by Hickenlooper, thus prolonging his time before execution. Mario Owens was sentenced to the death penalty in 2008 after murdering two witnesses in a murder trial he was involved in; Robert Ray, also on death row for ordering the murders, is awaiting further trial. 

According to Sen. Angela Williams (D-Denver), who introduced SB19-182 to repeal the death penalty in Colorado, the three men awaiting capital punishment in Colorado would not be exonerated if the bill passes. However, Gov. Jared Polis may commute their sentences. The bill notes that Colorado’s death penalty is “a failed public policy that is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in Colorado” and “risks the state of Colorado taking an innocent life.” So far, a total of 20 states and Washington, D.C. have abolished the death penalty. 

According to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), more than 165 people have been released from death row as a result of wrongful conviction. In a study conducted by DPIC, 76% of murder victims whose cases ended in capital punishment were white. In Colorado, people of color are five times more likely to face the death penalty, according to the ACLU of Colorado. All three of the men on death row in Colorado are black men. 

“It is time for Colorado’s legislators to show the moral leadership necessary to end this unjust system,” said ACLU of Colorado Public Policy Director Denise Maes in a press release. 

Additionally, data obtained by the ACLU indicates that each death penalty trial costs Colorado taxpayers $3.5 million, and that while only one person has been executed in the last 40 years, Coloradan’s have paid $1.5 million each year in taxes going towards capital punishment. 

Within the debate on capital punishment, Sen. Rhonda Fields (D-Aurora) represents one of the notable voices in opposition of its repeal. As the parent of Javed Fields, who was murdered alongside his fiancée by Owens and Ray in 2005, Fields vocally opposes the repeal of the death penalty. 

“The death penalty has nothing to do with race… It has everything to do with murder and accountability for crimes committed,” said Fields in a 2013 interview with The Denver Post. 

Colorado legislators have previously struck down several attempts to the repeal of the death penalty. If passed, the death penalty repeal would go into effect in July 2020. 

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