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.” 

(J. Ingold, "Colorado law to speed up death penalty is failing, advocates on both sides say," The Denver Post, July 25, 2016; J. Ingold, "Lawyers for Colorado death row inmate called judge’s firing “literally unprecedented”, The Denver Post, July 1, 2016.) See Costs and Recent Legislation.