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Colorado Democrats introduce bill to abolish capital punishment

Currently three men facing death penalty in Colo.
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Posted at 4:47 PM, Mar 04, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-05 14:14:51-05

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DENVER – Colorado’s Democratic lawmakers have put up a proposal that would make the Centennial State the 21st state in the United States to ban the death penalty.

Sen. Angela Williams, D-Denver, introduced legislation, SB19-182, late Monday to abolish Colorado's capital punishment law.

"It's going to be a full, straight repeal," said Williams.

With Democrats in power and a new governor in office who has said he would sign such a measure, Williams believes now is the time to ban capital punishment in Colorado.

"We had a trifecta from the November election. Democrats do control the first floor and the second floor. We feel like our opportunities are greater to finally get this important piece of legislation passed in the state of Colorado," responded Williams.

If passed, the bill would take effect in July. Williams said it will not impact the sentences of the three men currently on the state’s death row; that decision will be left up to Governor Jared Polis.

"I've been clear that if the legislature passed a bill to abolish the death penalty, I would sign it," Polis said in a statement to Denver7.

His office has not yet commented on whether he plans to commute the sentences of the three men currently on Colorado's death row – Nathan Dunlap, Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray.

Denver7 first took a 360 look at the many layers to the death penalty in Colorado when there was a call for Christopher Watts to be put to death after he pleaded guilty to killing his wife and daughters in Frederick.

We are now revisiting the impassioned debate lawmakers have ignited once again inside the gold dome.

Twenty states currently have no capital punishment on the books. Those highlighted in blue have either never had a death penalty or have abolished it.

History of the death penalty in Colorado

John Stoefel was the first to legally be put to death in Colorado in 1859 after killing his brother-in-law. There were 36 executions carried out up until 1897, when capital punishment was abolished up until it was restored in 1901 after a host of lynchings.

Every man executed in Colorado died by hanging up until 1934, when the state switched to gas chambers to kill those on death row. All 100+ murderers killed up until 1967 were convicted murderers.

In 1966, Colorado voters defeated a ballot measure referred by the state legislature that would have abolished capital punishment in a 67 to 33 percent vote.

The next year, Colorado put Luis Monge to death. Five years later, the U.S. Supreme Court stopped executions across the country in the Furman v. Georgia decision that deemed the death penalty cruel and unusual punishment.

In 1979, Gov. Dick Lamm allowed a bill to become law without his signature that reinstated the death penalty and nine years later, the state adopted lethal injection as its means of capital punishment.

In 1995, Colorado lawmakers passed a new bill putting death penalty decisions to a panel of three judges, which would be struck down in 2002 after another Supreme Court ruling saying such decisions needed to go to a jury.

In 1997, Gary Lee Davis became the last person to be executed in Colorado and the first since Monge in 1967. He was also the only person executed in Colorado to die as a result of lethal injection.

After the 2002 court decisions, the three men on death row at the time saw their sentences changed to life in prison. Though several cases have led to death penalty sentences and some cases are still pending, others, like the Aurora theater shooting case, led to life sentences because jurors decided not to impose capital punishment as a sentence.

This chart shows the number of executions by decade in Colorado, and the means used for the execution.

Bill sponsor says capital punishment is unjust, costly

"I'm passionate about this because, No. 1, it does not deter crime," said Williams. "I am passionate that it is implied differently."

Williams points to data from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which estimates a death penalty trial costs Colorado taxpayers $3.5 million compared to $150,000 for a life-without-parole trial.

All three men on Colorado's death row are black. A University of Denver study found prosecutors are "more likely to seek the death penalty against minority defendants."

"They're all African-American, they're all from Arapahoe County, they're all from the same high school and they were all tried in the 18th Judicial Court," explained Williams.

Colorado's three death row killers include Dunlap, who was convicted of killing four employees at an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese in 1993.

Governor John Hickenlooper granted Dunlap a temporary reprieve in 2013 and left his fate up to the next governor.

The other two are Owens and Ray. They are the two men responsible for killing state Sen. Rhonda Fields' son and fiancée.

Mother and Democratic lawmaker disagrees with race and cost arguments

For Sen. Fields, D-Aurora, the death penalty is personal.

"It's hard because every day I have a sense of emptiness. He was my only son. I taught him how to tie his shoes," said Fields in an interview with Denver7 late last year.

Her son, Javad Marshall-Fields, was murdered in 2005 along with his fiancée, Vivian Wolfe.

Both were about to start new careers and a life together in Virginia. Before they could start that life, Marshall-Fields was set to testify about the night his friend was murdered.

"I believe that there's some crimes that the death penalty is warranted," said Fields.

She refutes arguments on race and cost.

"I don't know what cost you put on justice, what cost you put on someone's life," she said.

Denver7 asked her about efforts to repeal the death penalty during the same interview last year, and how she might feel if Gov. Polis were to commute the sentences of her son's killers – Owens and Ray.

"I will not be upset about that and the reason I can't get upset about it is because I've lost the greatest gift of my life. I've lost my son due to gun violence," said Fields.

There are still three people on Colorado's death row. From left to right: Nathan Dunlap, Sir Mario Owens, Robert Ray. (Images courtesy Colorado DOC)

DA with history of death penalty cases thinks Colorado voters should have the final say

18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler tried one of the highest-profile death penalty cases in recent history – that of Aurora theater shooter James Holmes.

"It was probably the hardest professional decision that I've had to make," said Brauchler in an interview last year.

He sought the death penalty for Holmes but was unable to secure it.

"I think there was justice from the standpoint of that's what our system produced," Brauchler said.

Ultimately, one juror saved the life of the shooter responsible for killing 12 innocent people inside the Aurora movie theater.

"We're not Texas, we're not Georgia, we're not Florida. We're the state of Colorado. We do this a bit differently and I think we do it the right way," said Brauchler. "The death penalty in Colorado is appropriate to distinguish what I will call regular murders from more aggravated heinous murders."

Brauchler wrote a recent op-ed in the Denver Post that he believes Colorado voters – not lawmakers – should have the final say as to whether to abolish capital punishment.

He shared a similar view with Denver7, saying he believes Coloradans do have an appetite for the death penalty.

"I think what you look to is the fact that it is still on the books and nobody who's anti-death-penalty has the guts to send it to the voters to try to repeal it," Brauchler said.

Archbishop supports repeal, says life is sacred

Archbishop of Denver Samuel J. Aquila said he is opposed to the death penalty and supports the repeal.

"I am opposed to the death penalty and it is really rooted in the dignity in the human person and the dignity in human life itself," said Aquila.

He also said he sees real inequity in how the death penalty is implemented.

"Our whole prison system is a miserable failure," said Aquila. "What the death penalty doesn't say is this person can really change."

Death penalty juror says experience redirected his moral compass

"I grew up believing an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth kind of deal, and so I was in support of the death penalty," said juror Nate Becker.

Becker said he changed his mind on capital punishment after serving on the Edward Montour death penalty case in Douglas County.

"I walked away angry, I walked away disappointed in our judicial system," he said. "I felt the death penalty is not justice. It's vengeance and vengeance doesn't belong in our courts."

Becker's time on a death penalty jury came to an abrupt and emotional end after the judge let the defense present evidence sympathetic to the defendant. It was evidence Becker believes should have come to light long before he was asked to potentially put a man to death.

The evidence turned out to be so strong that the prosecution ended up taking the death penalty off the table.

"It became very apparent to me that we are asking people to come to this conclusion and not providing them all of the information. We're hiding facts and we're hiding the information and asking them to do that," said Becker.

He also brings up another perspective, what about the heavy burden that kind of decision leaves on jurors.

"Is it fair? Is it fair to ask a person to live with that for the rest of their life?" Becker asked.

What's next?

"I am very confident but I also understand the delicacy of this type of legislation and working that very closely, working with my colleagues, working with different organizations outside of the state capitol and we're going to do our best to repel the death penalty," said Williams.

The bill was formally introduced Monday and is scheduled to be first heard Wednesday in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Sens. Angela Williams and Julie Gonzales and Reps. Jeni Arndt and Adrienne Benavidez are the prime sponsors of the measure. All are Democrats. But among the cosponsors are Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican.

Denver7's Blair Miller contributed to this report.