Colorado lawmakers grappling with proposal to abolish the death penalty

Opponents call for public vote
Posted at 10:43 PM, Mar 06, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-08 13:01:04-05

DENVER -- A strong push is underway to abolish the death penalty in Colorado.

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 3-2 Wednesday night in favor of a bill that would repeal capital punishment for offenses charged on or after July 1, 2019.

Sen. Angela Williams, D-Denver, one of the bill's primary sponsors, said it is important to abolish the death penalty, "first of all, because we shouldn't be deciding how we're going to take a life to solve our social issues."

She said most of the people who face a possible death penalty are poor. Williams also said capital punishment is too expensive, and is applied inequitably.

"All we do is perpetuate violence and pain, when we think killing can fix killing," she said.

Victims speak out against proposal

There was push back on the proposal from Bobby Stephens, the lone survivor of the Chuck E. Cheese massacre in December of 1993.

Stephens was one of five people shot by Nathan Dunlap at the Aurora restaurant.

The killer was sentenced to death, but that sentence was placed on hold by then Governor John Hickenlooper.

Stephens told lawmakers that had he not been contacted by a reporter, he would never have known about their proposal to end capital punishment.

"That is very alarming to me," he said, "I feel that this bill should be put to a vote, and the people of Colorado should be heard."

When asked to describe the impact the mass killing has had on his life, Stephens said it's hard to describe.

"Not only are you faced with your own mortality at a young age," he said, "you're also challenged with the process of trying to put it behind you and move on."

Christine Wolfe said she, too, is opposed to Senate Bill 19-182.

Wolfe's daughter, Vivian, and Vivian's fiancé, Javad Marshall Fields, were gunned down in June of 2005, while riding on Dayton Street in Aurora.

Fields was targeted because he was slated to testify in a trial against murder suspect Robert Ray.

Wolfe told Denver7 that she now believes in the death penalty.

"It's difficult," she said, "but they took my daughter's life without reason."

Wolfe said she has a strong opinion about it. She said she feels like her soul is dead.

"I understand about love and care," she said, "but criminals, sometimes, they don't need to be in this world."

"They threatened to kill me," she said, when asked about her frequent appearances at the suspect's court hearings.

"That's what they do, even in jail. They tell someone to go shoot or hurt me, or someone else. They live in a different world."

District attorneys seek voter input

Dave Young, the 17th Judicial District Attorney, said capital punishment is a critical issue that should be addressed by voters.

He disputed claims that carrying out the death penalty is too expensive.

He cited the Scott Ostrem case.

"Scott Ostrem spent the afternoon at a shooting range to get some practice," he said. "Later that evening, he went into a crowded Walmart and started shooting people."

"He did it for fun," Young said, "That's the kind of person we're talking about when we seek the death penalty."

The DA told lawmakers the threat of the death penalty actually saved money.

"The defense in that case knew it was going to be a death penalty case," he said. "(Ostrem) came in and plead guilty to three counts of first-degree murder and is now serving three consecutive life sentences."

Weld County DA Michael Roarke made the same argument with the Chris Watts case, in which Watts plead guilty to murdering his wife and two daughters.

"Without the death penalty in Colorado, he would not have done that," Roarke said.

18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler said death penalty opponents often use his case against theater shooting suspect James Holmes to argue that the death penalty is too expensive.

He said it shouldn't be.

"We identified 1,158 victims in that case," he said, "and $1.5 million federal tax dollars were spent purely on servicing them for purposes of this prosecution. This case is not a fair example."

Brauchler also said the fact that all three men on Colorado's death row are all black is an anomaly.

He said when you look at the death penalty, historically, in Colorado, you see an equitable application.

Time for a better place

Rev. Amanda Henderson, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, said that religious organization, which represents people of Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu backgrounds, supports the bill.

"We think it's beyond time to end the death penalty in Colorado," she said. "The death penalty doesn't work. It doesn't deter crime, it's expensive and the resources could be used to support (programs) in communities that would actually prevent crime."

Former Public Defender Doug Wilson told lawmakers, "it's time for Colorado to be a better place."

He said evolving standards of decency have been written into the state's death penalty.

"If we didn't have that language, we would still be executing children," he said.

Wilson said he has represented 35 clients where prosecutors threatened or sought death.

He said he knows there are many people who support the death penalty.

"I understand that it's a politically pressured decision," he said, "but I think the voters have told you, by sitting on juries, that they are not, in fact, supportive of capital punishment."

Williams told Denver7 that she can't imagine the pain that victims still feel.

"I want to be as respectful as possible to them and their positions," she said, noting viewpoints on both sides of the issue.

When asked her reaction to calls for a public vote, the bill sponsor said, "I firmly believe this is one the people want us to make a difference on, and repeal the death penalty."