Colorado’s Death Penalty To Linger On


Image via AP Photo - Sue Ogrocki

Kera Morris, Editor-in-Chief

The death penalty remains on the books at least another year. Democrats in the state legislature have momentarily given up their effort to see the punishment eliminated in the state of Colorado.

Senators Angela Williams and Julie Gonzales, both Democrats, introduced the legislation in early March. But when it came time for discussion and votes, the bill (known as SB-182) looked dead-on-arrival. “I’m going to give SB-182 a dignified death. Not a torturous one,” Gonzales explained to her congressional colleagues. “I ask that this bill be laid over because I believe wholeheartedly that the way in which we treat each other through this process is as important as the policy itself. So when this bill comes back next session, there will be nothing left to hide behind, except this abhorrent, terrible practice.”

Senator Gonzales in committee. Image via Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite









So the debate about our usage of the death penalty is yet ongoing, despite the recent efforts by Senators Williams and Gonzales. They did expect their legislation to pass without much issue, especially now that Democrats control both houses of Congress and the governorship of the state; they didn’t anticipate backlash from within the party. Others, however, weren’t on board.

A main issue lies within the core group of politicians expected to vote for the bill to send it onto Governor Polis’ desk for signing: at least one fellow Democrat, Senator Rhonda Fields, said she felt like she had experienced a “sucker punch,” having claimed she had been made aware of the bill on a Monday and was being expected to vote for it on the following Wednesday.

Senator Fields became active in politics after the death of her son, Javad Marshall-Fields, and his fiancée Vivian Wolfe, who were murdered in 2005. The two men who collaborated in the crime are on death row at the Colorado State Penitentiary, alongside one other killer who shot and killed four people while injuring another at a Chuck-E-Cheese.

Image via AP Photo/Aurora Sentinel & Daily Sun, Patrick Kelley
Senator Fields (center right, wearing a black dress and grey jacket) approaches the site where her son and his fiance were murdered.

“It was not enough time for Senator Fields,” offers Abbey Vogel, an aide to Senator Gonzales who spoke with this reporter. “We’re going to try again next year.” In their opinion, the bill will pass with Field’s help; they believe she perhaps only needs the additional emotional preparation.

On the other side of the political aisle, Republican Senator Owen Hill issued the following statement: “The people of Colorado have a right to speak on this issue. Whether or not you support or oppose the death penalty, it is important to recognize the emotional weight that this issue carries to many in our state. I’m thankful that the Senate recognized this and decided to postpone this debate until we can conduct a deliberative process with victims, advocates, activists, and legal professionals together to reach a conclusion that includes all voices.”

One survivor of the Chuck-E-Cheese killing spree, Bobby Stephens, spoke to Denver’s 9News explaining that much like Senator Fields he had been surprised by the rapidity of the bill’s introduction. In his opinion, this issue should be left up to voters.

“Nobody has reached out to the victims in these cases,” says Stephens.

After reaching out to our District Attorney Beth McCann at her Denver office, we learned from her Communications Director Carolyn Tyler that DA McCann opposes the death penalty and testified in support of SB-182; excerpts of her testimony offer insight to the direction in which the city is looking: “There are a few good arguments in favor of keeping the death penalty in Colorado. I respect the thoughtful and informed opinion of those who still favor capital punishment, particularly those who have lost a loved one in a horrible murder…

“If the death penalty is not available for class one felonies, the punishment is automatic life without parole…

“Some will argue that capital punishment serves as a deterrent. In my experience, people who commit extreme acts of violence do not consider the legal consequences of their actions….

“Death penalty cases take far too long and drain far too many resources… These cases take 20-30 years on average to resolve. Here in Colorado, the Nathan Dunlap case has been going on for 25 years now. The burden on the system itself is enormous. Defense counsel should and will file hundreds of motions throughout the pendency of a death penalty case. No stone will be left unturned in the representation of a person facing death. Prosecutors will tell you that when a death penalty case is pending in an office, it affects everyone in the office to some degree. It becomes a focal point for resources and drains resources from prosecution of other important cases.

“In conclusion, the death penalty law no longer serves the interest of public safety, criminal justice nor the needs of victims and their families. It allows for the inconsistent administration of justice and involves the state in the taking of a life. It is time for the Legislature to repeal the law.”

However, to offer some additional background, we must consider that the United States is the last of the developed Western world countries to execute its citizens. While twenty other states have eliminated the death penalty from their penal codes, Colorado continues to maintain execution as a viable punishment.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, seeking life-without-possibility-of-parole costs the taxpayer an approximate $740,000. Comparatively, prosecutors seeking a death sentence for the same crime will run about $1.26 million. That’s just the cost of the initial trial. Housing a death row prisoner runs taxpayers approximately $90,000 extra per year.

Image via Photo provided by the Colorado Department of Corrections
From left: Nathan Dunlap, Sir Mario Owens, Robert Ray.

Some death penalty proponents will occasionally offer solutions like ‘a bullet is only fifty cents,’ or ‘rope is reusable.’ These flippant responses display some ignorance regarding the cause of the costs associated with execution.

When a death penalty is sought and gained, an appeal starts immediately—this is a constitutional requirement and happens automatically, and it can be difficult to even have these waived by a defendant who’s prepared to die. This is, however, uncommon. The condemned who do wish to fight can seek multiple appeals on many constitutionally legal grounds.

Members of victim’s rights groups often waffle on this issue. When you speak to one victim’s family, you speak to only that one person’s family. Revenge is a motivator to some, and forgiveness a motivator to others. Senator Gonzales, advocating to repeal the death penalty and Senator Fields, who can’t say for certain, both of these congresswomen have felt the pain of being the family of murder victims but aren’t automatically coming to the same conclusions.

There’s so much to consider.

Racial disparity issues haunt the process of execution. Black men comprise nearly 42% of death row inmates, while comprising less than 6% of the population. Whites and blacks commit murder roughly on par; however, white men are much less likely to face execution.

Gender disparity issues are a big consideration as well. Women rarely receive death penalties; they are considered nurturers and those who kill are thought of as aberrations. In order to execute a woman, a prosecutor will often present a trial about something more than murder—sexuality or behavior in motherhood.

In the case of the Colorado death row, the physical makeup of the people waiting there is stark. These three men could theoretically, with the stroke of a pen, be dead within days. In the case of Dunlap, Governor Polis says he will commute the sentence should it come to his desk; the fates of the other two men is a rather more tight-lipped scenario.

What’s done cannot be undone.

We’ll conclude with a few additional facts to consider: since 1976, 151 men have been released from death row after evidence came forward of wrongful conviction. The random racial and gender-based nature of application of punishment is too deeply ingrained to be eliminated entirely. And in our system of laws, we rely on dispassion from judges and juries. Should we allow ourselves to lose that dispassion in the case of execution, in choosing to kill?