State lawmakers consider ending death penalty

Last person put to death by state was in 1997

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Democrats who control Colorado's Legislature are rushing to act on a bill to repeal the state's little-used death penalty, holding a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on March 6, just two days after the proposal was introduced. Senate Bill 19-182 passed the committee by a 3-2 vote.

One of the bill's sponsors calls the death penalty “an arbitrary punishment.”

“The truth is that the death penalty is a cruel and unusual form of punishment that is disproportionately used against people of color,” state Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, said in a news release following the vote.

Lawmakers have tried before to repeal Colorado's death penalty, which has been applied just twice since 1967. Most recently, Gary Lee Davis died by lethal injection in 1997 for the 1986 kidnapping, rape and murder of a neighbor, Virginia May.

First-term Democratic Gov. Jared Polis supports the 2019 bill. John Hickenlooper, Polis' predecessor and a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, indefinitely delayed the execution of one of three people on Colorado's death row in 2013. Hickenlooper said he had doubts about the fairness of the death penalty and problems in obtaining the drugs required for lethal injection.

Sen. Angela Williams, D-Denver, another bill sponsor, emphasized the fact that all three facing death in Colorado are African Americans as ample evidence of historic racial inequities in the criminal justice system. She also pointed to the difficulty of getting death penalty convictions — a unanimous jury verdict is required — and the cost.

“Our criminal justice system demonstrates racial bias at every step of the process, from the point of arrest all the way through to the point of executions for heinous crimes,'' Williams said at a Capitol news conference March 5.

She was referring to Nathan Dunlap, sentenced to die for the ambush slayings of four people inside an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in 1993; and Robert Ray and Sir Mario Owens, convicted of killing Javad Marshall-Fields and his fiancee, Vivian Wolfe, as they drove on a suburban Denver street in 2005.

Marshall-Fields was the son of Rhonda Fields, a former House representative and now a Democratic senator who has vocally supported the death penalty.

“I'm concerned about the process being hurried and rushed,'' Fields told reporters Tuesday. “This seems a little choreographed to me.''

First-term Democratic Rep. Tom Sullivan, whose son, Alex, was killed in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting, also has supported the death penalty.

Sullivan and other survivors were astonished when a jury refused to hand the death penalty to James Holmes, who killed 12 people and wounded 70. Holmes was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The bill would apply to offenses charged on or after July 1.

The threat of the death penalty for felony murder often leads to agreements with prosecutors to enter guilty pleas in exchange for life prison terms.

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