CO legislation would make death penalty easier

Posted at 9:10 PM, Jan 20, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-21 00:44:01-05

A tweak to Colorado's law could make it easier for juries to sentence a defendant to death.

Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, wants to change the standard for a jury from a unanimous decision to just nine out of 12 jurors voting for the death penalty.

"I'm calling for a super majority," said Lundberg. "I believe that the standard should be high, but it shouldn't be unattainably high."

Last year, two separate juries considered the death penalty and did not sentence the defendant to death.

In August, a Denver jury found Dexter Lewis guilty of stabbing five to death at Fero's Bar. That jury stopped the sentencing process during the second of three phases, determining that what Lewis experienced in his life outweighed the crime, resulting in a life sentence.

In July, an Arapahoe County jury of 12 found the Aurora theater shooter guilty of multiple murder counts, but could not agree on sentencing the shooter to death.

"I think it was nine 'firm,' two 'on the fence' and one 'absolute no,'" said one of the Aurora theater jurors who was in favor of the death penalty.

That juror spoke with Denver7 reporter Marshall Zelinger on the condition that her identity remained unknown.

"You get those one or two stubborn people and then everything just stops. For one person to be able to decide for everyone, it's kind of ridiculous," said the juror. "That's the way it was. It wasn't a unanimous decision. It was, 'Hey, we've been here for four months now, I kind of want to get my life back.' (Another juror was) that way. (They were) stubborn in (their) vote, so let's end it and go home."

Colorado law requires a unanimous decision from all 12 deliberating jurors to sentence a defendant to death. This bill would change it so that the final vote on life or death would only need nine in favor of death.

"If anything was deserving of the death penalty, I'd say that's it the Aurora (theater) shooting," said Lundberg. "I think we need to come to terms with; are we going to have a death penalty that functions in Colorado or are we just going to put it in name only and not really have the death penalty?"

The Public Defender's Office, anti-death penalty attorneys and the Better Priorities Initiative are all against the idea of reducing the number of jurors needed to secure a death penalty verdict.

"If you need a unanimous jury to get a DUI conviction or for convicting someone for stealing a candy bar, the bar should be absolutely just as high, if not higher, for executing someone," Colorado's Public Defender Doug Wilson told Denver7.

"Colorado law seems to have such a high standard, that it's unattainable," said Lundberg.

Of the 31 states that have the death penalty, only three -- Alabama, Delaware and Florida -- are the only states that do not require a unanimous jury decision.

In December, State Rep. Kim Ransom, R-Douglas County, told Denver7 that she was going to propose a bill to allow district attorneys the opportunity to seat a second jury for sentencing purposes only, if the first jury is hung when it comes to determining life or death.

"When you're asking to seat a second jury, without seeing all the evidence and listening to all the testimonies, I don't think I would agree," said the Aurora theater trial juror.


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