Legislative panel moves bill to repeal Colorado death penalty to full state Senate

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AURORA | A panel of state lawmakers on Wednesday gave initial approval to a measure that would prospectively ban the death penalty in Colorado, marking the first legislative movement on the political quagmire in decades.

Following several hours of testimony at the Capitol Wednesday afternoon and evening, members of the State Senate Judiciary Committee voted 3-2 along party lines to move SB 19-182 to the full chamber.

The bill calling for the abolition of capital punishment in the state splashed onto lawmakers’ desks late in the day on Monday, prompting complaints from opponents on both sides of the aisle that the delicate issue is being steamrolled into Democrats’ political Cerberus in both chambers of the state congress and Gov. Jared Polis’ desk. 

Polis has indicated he will sign the bill if it makes it to his desk.

Democratic lawmakers have made multiple attempts to repeal the state’s capital punishment rules in recent years, but all have failed, primarily stymied by Republicans, who held control of the Senate for the past several years.

If passed, the measure would only apply to cases prosecuted after July 1, 2019. However, opponents have argued the measure would effectively nullify the sentences of the trio of Aurora men currently facing death sentences in the state.

“You pass this … those sentences go the way of the dodo,” George Brauchler, district attorney for the 18th Judicial District, told lawmakers.

Brauchler referenced a recent interview between Polis and a Colorado Public Radio host in which the Democratic governor said he would likely commute the sentences of those on Colorado’s death row to life in prison without the possibility of parole if the bill were to make it to his desk.

The state hasn’t executed a convict since 1997. Former Gov. John Hickenlooper indefinitely punted the decision regarding whether to sign the death warrant for a 44-year-old Aurora man currently facing a death sentence.

Whether state officials could even successfully perform an execution has also been called into question in recent years, as the state can no longer obtain the drug legally required to perform legal injections: sodium thiopental. In a recent story in the Colorado Sun, officials suggested the drug could still be acquired if necessary.

Much of the testimony on Wednesday afternoon centered on the three black men who currently comprise Colorado’s death row: Nathan Dunlap, Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray. 

All three men are from Aurora, committed the crimes for which they were convicted in the city, and attended the same high school: Overland High School in the Cherry Creek School District.

Dunlap, 44, faces the death penalty for shooting and killing four people, and seriously injuring a fifth, when he was 19 years old at an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese in 1993.

The only man who survived the shooting, Bobby Stephens, addressed lawmakers at the hearing and implored them to reject the measure sponsored by seven Democrats and one Republican. Stephens’ brother also spoke in opposition to the bill.

Owens and Ray face death sentences for shooting and killing several people, including Javad Marshall-Fields and his fiance, Vivian Wolfe. 

Marshall-Fields was the son of Aurora Democratic State Sen. Rhonda Fields. 

Fields has expressed her displeasure with the bill’s hasty introduction in her chamber.

“Senate introduced SB-182 to abolish Death Penalty 04MAR,” she tweeted on Monday. “Bill scheduled in Judiciary Committee 06MAR. No conversations w victims like me who have been harmed. Voters and victims voices matter. What’s the rush?

Fields’s daughter, Maisha Fields, also condemned the measure’s apparent expediency. She testified before committee members on Wednesday to defend the death sentences handed to her brother’s killers.

“This is not a failed policy,” she said. “This is policy that works and the people on death row deserve to be there. They’re guilty.”

Attorneys and lawmakers badgered each other over the costs of the death penalty in the state, with some saying nixing the sentence could save hundreds of thousands of dollars, and others calling the savings a red herring. 

A fiscal note for the bill claims the measure would save the state hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs tied to jurors, courtroom transcripts and public defenders each year. Moving offenders from death row to standard incarceration would also save the state about $12,000 per year per offender, according to the fiscal note. 

Officials said a death penalty case typically costs about $3.5 million, while a case leading to a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole usually costs about $150,000.

A bevy of witnesses who testified into the evening Wednesday said the death penalty is unfairly handed to people of color, citing the fact that all three men on Colorado’s death row are black.

Prosecutors largely dismissed that fact as a “historical anomaly.” Several witnesses later bristled at that comment.

District Attorneys from Weld, El Paso and Adams Counties joined Brauchler in condemning the measure. The four prosecutors called on lawmakers to put the question of whether to abolish the death penalty in the state to a vote of the people.

“This is an issue that the people of the state of Colorado should decide,” Dave Young, district attorney for the 17th Judicial District, said.

Witnesses and lawmakers later squabbled over polling regarding Coloradans’ appetite for the death penalty, with some saying a ballot measure asking to erase the policy would surely fail, and others suggesting it would receive wide support.

Top prosecutors from Denver and Boulder Counties testified in favor of the repeal. 

Republican lawmakers Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs and John Cooke of Greeley cast the two dissenting votes among committee members around 7:30 p.m. Wednesday night.

“The death penalty … is rare in Colorado, as I think it should be, but nevertheless should be available as punishment,” Gardner said before casting his vote.

The bill passed the committee without amendments. It will now be heard before the full senate.