Colorado

Colorado

EDITORIALS: Colorado Newspapers Support Bill to Repeal Death Penalty

As Colorado's Senate Judiciary Committee considers SB 95—a bill that would replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole—the editorial boards of The Denver Post and The Durango Herald have urged the legislature to end capital punishment in the state. Colorado's death penalty system "is broken beyond repair and needs to be repealed," wrote The Denver Post​​. Repeal, it said, "would save the state millions in both the prosecution and defense of murderers and an untold number of judicial man hours that have so infrequently resulted in death." The Post editorial also highlighted the unwillingness of Colorado juries to impose death sentences, noting that the highly-publicized capital cases of James Holmes and Dexter Lewis both resulted in life sentences. The Durango Herald editorial board also called for repeal, agreeing with the arguments advanced by Republican legislators in the neighboring mountain states of Utah and Nevada that the death penalty "is a failed public policy, is a waste of taxpayer dollars, the risk of executing innocent people is too high and it causes unnecessary harm to victims’ families." The Herald editorial also emphasized the high cost of capital punishment—quoting estimates by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado "that the average death penalty trial costs $3.5 million, compared to $150,000 for a trial for life without parole"—and that Colorado has had only one execution in 50 years. In 2013, citing arbitrariness and unfairness in the application of the state's death penalty, Governor John W. Hickenlooper granted a reprieve to Nathan Dunlop, one of three men on Colorado's death row.  A 2015 study published in the University of Denver Law Review subsequently showed that prosecutorial decisions to seek the death penalty in Colorado "depend[] to an alarming extent on the race and geographic location of the defendant." All of Colorado's death-row prisoners are African-American men from the municipality of Aurora. SB 95 would apply prospectively to future crimes, but would not affect the cases of the prisoners currently on death row.

EDITORIALS: New York Times Hails Prosecutors' Changing Views on Death Penalty

In a February 6 editorial, The New York TImes hails the reform efforts of the "new generation" of state and local prosecutors who are working to change the United States' criminal justice system, and especially the use of the death penalty. The Times highlights the comments of two newly elected local prosecutors, Beth McCann, the new prosecutor in Denver, Colorado, and Kim Ogg, the new district attorney in Harris County, Texas. McCann has said her office will not seek the death penalty because she does not think "that the state should be in the business of killing people." Ogg has pledged that there will be “very few death penalty prosecutions" during her tenure as district attorney. The Times also notes the leadership of state elected officials, pointing to Washington state, where current Democratic Attorney General, Bob Ferguson, and his Rebulican predecessor, Rob McKenna, are jointly supporting a death penalty repeal bill. "Prosecutors aren’t just seeking fewer death sentences; they’re openly turning against the practice, even in places where it has traditionally been favored," the editorial states, citing the historically low number of death sentences in 2016. Emphasizing the influence of these state and local officials, it calls the role of prosecutor, "one of the most powerful yet least understood jobs in the justice system." Their role is especially critical as national leaders present a "distorted ... reality of crime in America" in support of a "law and order" agenda, the Times says. "In these circumstances, the best chance for continued reform lies with state and local prosecutors who are open to rethinking how they do their enormously influential jobs."

Denver's Newly Elected District Attorney Says She Will Not Seek the Death Penalty

Newly-elected Denver, Colorado District Attorney Beth McCann (pictured), sworn into office on January 10, 2017, has said that her administration will not seek the death penalty. Asked by 9News, Denver's NBC affiliate, whether Denver was "done with the death penalty," McCann said: "We are under my administration. I don't think that the state should be in the business of killing people." McCann told 9News that alternative sentences provide sufficient punishment at a substantially lesser cost: "I believe that life without the possibility of parole ... gets to the punishment piece, but doesn't cost the taxpayers those millions and millions of dollars that could be used to prosecute other cases." McCann also said she would support repeal of the death penalty in Colorado. No Denver jury has sentenced a defendant to death since 1986 and, after a lengthy capital trial, a jury in August 2015 sentenced Dexter Lewis to life for the stabbing deaths of 5 people in a Denver bar. The state currently has a moratorium on executions. McCann's views are in line with those of many new district attorneys across the country. In the November 2016 elections, voters replaced prosecutors who had aggressively sought death sentences in Hillsborough County, Florida, Harris County, Texas, and Jefferson County, Alabama. In an August primary, voters in Duval County, Florida, ousted Angela Corey, one of the nation's most pro-death penalty prosecutors.

Colorado Law to Speed Up Death Penalty Appeals Has Faltered and Failed

Twenty years ago, frustrated by what they perceived to be the slow pace of capital punishment, Colorado legislators adopted a law to "fix" their death penalty by speeding up appeals. Proponents and opponents of the state's death penalty agree on one thing: the law hasn't worked. As The Denver Post reports, the state law intended to streamline the death penalty appeals process by imposing a two-year deadline for decision and consolidating direct appeals and post-conviction appeals into a "unitary" system of review has failed. Colorado's two death row prisoners affected by the law have spent more than seven years at the first step in the appeals process, with no ruling on their cases in sight. The 1997 law changed the order of death penalty appeals, putting the lengthier post-conviction appeal (involving new evidence and claims of ineffective representation or prosecutorial misconduct) first, before the direct appeal (which involves only issues that were raised by defense counsel at the time of trial). Once the trial court rules on the post-conviction appeal, the Colorado Supreme Court would review and resolve both appeals together, in a single "unitary" appeal proceeding. But while the law originally allowed "no extensions of time of any kind" in post-conviction appeals, a 2010 Colorado Supreme Court ruling allowed extensions to be granted under "extraordinary circumstances" necessary to protect a defendant's procedural rights. Death row inmates Robert Ray and Sir Mario Owens both received extensions. Seven years later, Owens' case has had an extensive evidentiary hearing, but the appeal may have to be redone because the state supreme court fired the judge presiding over the case just before he was expected to issue his ruling. Ray's post-conviction hearings have not yet begun. Christopher Decker, a Denver defense attorney, voiced concerns about whether a fast appeals system would adequately protect defendants' constitutional rights: “If they just speed up the process and strip everyone of due process, we’ll have a very fast outcome that will be worth nothing. It won’t stand up to constitutional review.” Jeanne Adkins, the former state representative who sponsored the 1997 bill to speed up appeals, said, "I’m almost to the point where I would say, ‘Let’s do away with it and save the taxpayers the money.'" Expressing frustration with the death penalty system, she says “[t]he death penalty has become so politicized, truthfully, in the last decade or so in Colorado that I really think that a lot of what the legislature tried to do may actually be pretty pointless now.” 

NEW VOICES: Retired Colorado Corrections Officer Raises Questions of Deterrence, Innocence

In a recent op-ed for The Denver Post, retired corrections officer and military veteran Pete Lister offered a critique of the death penalty, saying it fails as a deterrent, risks executing innocent people, and costs more than life without parole. "Capital punishment has not, in a single state, proven to be a deterrent to capital crime." Lister said. "Society consists of human beings who make mistakes. There are those who are, occasionally, negligent, and some who are even dishonest or unethical. We are faced with the troubling fact that if we, as a society, err in a capital case, the sentence is irreversible." Drawing on his experience as a corrections officer, Lister compared capital punishment to life without parole, saying, "involuntary incarceration is not the life of Riley that some would have you believe" and asking whether "life in prison without the hope of parole" may "actually [be] worse than a death sentence." Discussing the risk or error, he said, "When we, society, wrongfully convict someone, whether through malfeasance or neglect, or whether the technology extant at time of trial was insufficient to prove innocence, then we, society, have a responsibility to release him, to publicly acknowledge the error, and allow that citizen to move past the horror that we, society, have inflicted. How do we do that after we've put him to death?" Lister also noted that the cost of capital punishment, which he said "far exceeds the cost of incarcerati[on] even for life, ... is more than simply financial. It's been argued that voting for execution takes a terrible emotional toll on jury members." He concludes with a question: "Whether you believe the death penalty is justifiable, if you were the one being accused of a murder you had not committed, where would you stand on this issue?"

Mentally Ill James Holmes Sentenced to Life in Prison in Aurora, CO Theater Shooting

On August 7, a jury in Aurora, Colorado, sentenced James Holmes to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the 2012 movie theater shooting that killed 12 people and injured dozens more. The jury said they could not reach a unanimous decision on Holmes' sentence, an outcome that results in a sentence of life without parole. After the trial, one juror said that the prosecution had not persuaded three of the jurors to impose a death sentence. The deliberations, she said, were very emotional, and at the time jurors agreed to stop deliberating, one juror was firmly committed to a life sentence, with two other holdouts still undecided. She said, "The issue of mental illness was everything for the one who did not want to impose the death penalty." [UPDATE: One of the jurors who voted for a life sentence says there was not a single holdout juror for life. Three voted for life, and the jury did not inquire further into the views of the other two after the indicated that her vote was firm.] Holmes had also offered to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of life without parole, which would have removed the need for the six-month trial that cost Colorado taxpayers more than $5 million. After that plea offer was rejected, Holmes pleaded not guity by reason of insanity. All of the mental health experts agreed that Holmes would not have committed the killing but for his mental illness, but disagreed on whether he could appreciate the criminality of his conduct. The jury rejected the insanity defense and convicted him of all charges. Holmes' sentence highlights both the rarity of death sentences in Colorado and racial and geographic inequities in its imposition.

New Study Shows Discrimination in Colorado Prosecutors' Use of Death Penalty

new study to be published in the University of Denver Law Review shows that whether prosecutors seek the death penalty in Colorado "depends to an alarming extent on the race and geographic location of the defendant." The study - based upon 10 years of data collected by attorney Meg Beardsley and University of Denver law professors Sam Kamin and Justin Marceau and sociology professor Scott Phillips - shows that race and place are statistically significant predictors of whether prosecutors will seek the death penalty in Colorado and that prosecutors are more likely to seek the death penalty against minority defendants than against white defendants. In a press release accompanying the release of the study, the researchers say the data "directly refutes the claims made by elected officials, that racial disparities merely reflect the propensity of certain races to commit more murders." The study also shows that, even after controlling for the rates at which different racial groups commit statutorily death-eligible murders and for the "heinousness" of the murders, non-white defendants and defendants in Colorado’s 18th Judicial District - where the capital trial of James Holmes for the Aurora movie theater killings is taking place - were more likely than others to be capitally prosecuted. 

PUBLIC OPINION: American Ambivalence on the Death Penalty

A new Rasmussen poll found that 57% of American adults support the death penalty, down from 63% in the organization's polls dating from 2009. The poll found 26% of respondents opposed the death penalty, with 17% undecided. Respondents were also asked whether they favored the death penalty for James Holmes if he is convicted of the mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Just 55% said they believed Holmes should be sentenced to death, compared to 66% who held that view immediately after the shooting in 2012. Twenty percent were undecided. Rasmussen found that Americans were less supportive of executing a defendant who is mentally ill, an issue in Holmes's case. Respondents also had concerns about wrongful convictions, and were split on whether the death penalty deterred crime.

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