RECENT LEGISLATION: Death Penalty Repeal Passes Delaware Senate; Defeated in Colorado

On March 26, Delaware's Senate passed (11-10) a bill to repeal the death penalty, after amending it to exclude current death row inmates. Those who testified in support of the repeal cited racial disparities, a lack of deterrent effect, and the high costs associated with capital punishment. The bill will now move on to the House of Representatives, which is expected to consider the measure in April. On the same day, Colorado’s House Judiciary Committee voted (6-4) against a repeal bill. Legislators heard nine hours of testimony regarding the bill, largely from supporters of the measure. Seventeen states have either considered legislation to repeal the death penalty this year or will likely consider it in the next session. Earlier in March, a bill to repeal the death penalty passed the Maryland General Assembly, and the governor has pledged to sign it into law, making Maryland the 18th state to do away with the death penalty.

NEW VOICES: Retired Colorado Judge Changes Mind on Death Penalty

Leland Anderson served as a judge in Jefferson County, Colorado, sentencing one man to death while sparing another. In a recent op-ed in The Denver Post, Anderson wrote how those cases affected him: “Those cases continue to haunt me even to this day, many years after having signed off on the decisions with a trembling heart.” He said his views on the death penalty have changed since he was on the bench: “I have had much time to reflect on the experience of judging another person’s life or death. The conclusion I have reached is that I can no longer support the death penalty even though I once voted in favor of executing a man…. What I have finally come to realize is that I cannot support the death penalty because what I hold dearest in life is the promise of redemption.” Anderson concluded “that the death penalty represents an anti-life force in society,” and called for an end to capital punishment.

STUDIES: Colorado's Death Penalty Applied Arbitrarily

A recent study of Colorado’s death penalty concluded that the punishment is applied so rarely and without clear statutory standards as to render it constitutionally unfair. Professors Justin Marceau (left) and Sam Kamin (center) from the University of Denver College of Law, and Professor Wanda Foglia (right) of Rowan University examined murder convictions in the state from 1999 to 2010. The authors discovered that, while the death penalty was an option in approximately 92% of first degree murders, it was sought by prosecutors in only 3% of the cases, pursued through sentencing in only 1% of the cases, and imposed in just 0.6% of the cases. The researchers concluded, “A constitutionally sound capital sentencing system must limit the discretion of prosecutors and jurors such that the determination of life and death is not one of caprice or arbitrariness …. Colorado’s capital sentencing system fails to genuinely narrow the class of death eligible offenders so as to minimize the risk of arbitrariness. [T]here is no meaningful way to distinguish between the many who are eligible for the penalty and the very few who receive it.”

The Changing Face of the Death Penalty in American Politics

A recent column in The Economist examined the growing number of governors and other political leaders in the U.S. who are challenging the death penalty. In Arkansas, Governor Mike Beebe (pictured) announced in January that he would sign a death penalty abolition bill if the legislature sent him one. In Maryland, Governor Martin O'Malley has led a push to repeal the death penalty. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper said he is reconsidering his support for the death penalty as that state considers its repeal. New Hampshire's new governor, Maggie Hassan, indicated she would sign a repeal bill if it reaches her, after two previous governors vetoed such actions. In Oregon, Governor John Kitzhaber suspended executions for the remainder of his term and asked legislators to review the issue. The Republican governors of Ohio and Kansas also have reservations about the death penalty. Governor John Kasich of Ohio has granted four commutations in capital cases, citing the need for fair trials, and Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas said capital punishment should be reserved for figures like Osama bin Laden. The author in The Economist contrasted these developments with Arkansas' former governor, Bill Clinton, who flew home from campaigning for president in 1992 to oversee an execution.  The article stated, "[T]he death-penalty debate has changed in ways that go beyond day-to-day politics. It is less loud and more sceptical, giving thoughtful governors room to question a policy that causes them anguish—because they think it arbitrary, ineffective and costly, and because they impose it."

NEW VOICES: Father of Slain Corrections Officer Reverses Course on Death Penalty

In a recent op-ed, the father of slain Colorado corrections officer Eric Autobee (pictured) explained why he no longer supported the death penalty and is working for its repeal. Writing in the Pueblo Chieftain, Bob Autobee, himself a veteran corrections officer, said the pursuit of the death penalty in his son’s case caused an "unspeakable emotional toll" on his family. He  wrote, “Given what I know now, I can no longer support Colorado’s broken death penalty system. What’s more, I will work to end it to ensure that our resources are better used and no family ever has to go through what my wife and I have endured.” A sentence of life in prison, he wrote, would have been a better option: “If the ultimate punishment in our case had been life without parole, my wife and I could be focusing on more important things like our healing and working to stop violence in our prisons.” He suggested using the money spent on the death penalty to make prisons safer for corrections officers: “As a victim’s father who has been trapped in the labyrinth of the death penalty, and after seeing the real misuse of resources, I am begging our elected officials to do away with our broken death penalty system. Colorado can do better by our corrections officials, and we can do much better by victims.” Read the op-ed below.

Many States to Consider Death Penalty Abolition and Reform in 2013

As legislative sessions begin across the country, legislators in several states have proposed bills to abolish or reform the death penalty in 2013. In Alabama, Sen. Hank Sanders will introduce bills to abolish the death penalty, or alternatively to institute a series of reforms. “I believe the death penalty is not only unproductive but counter-productive,” he said. Texas will also consider a number of death penalty reform bills, including restrictions on certain types of evidence, and the creation of an innocence commission. Colorado Sen. Claire Levy is drafting a bill to abolish the death penalty. "We have increasing concerns about the possibility of executing an innocent person," said Levy. Kentucky Rep. Carl Rollins plans to propose a bill to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole. In Maryland, Gov. Martin O'Malley has voiced support for a bill to end the death penalty and direct some of the money saved to murder victims' families. New Hampshire's Gov. Margaret Hassan also supports abolition, and a bill is likely to be introduced in that state. In Oregon, where Gov. John Kitzhaber instituted a moratorium on executions for the remainder of his term, Rep. Mitch Greenlick plans to introduce a bill beginning the process of abolishing the death penalty.

NEW VOICES: Colorado District Attorney Says Death Penalty Costly, Time Consuming, and Unfair

In a recent op-ed in Colorado's Daily Camera, Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett expressed his concerns about the death penalty, as the state prepares to consider its repeal. Garnett said, "[T]he practical problems with the death penalty make it of limited relevance to Colorado law enforcement." He pointed to the high costs of capital cases, the time required to prosecute, and the randomness of its application as major concerns: "Prosecuting a death penalty case through a verdict in the trial court can cost the prosecution well over $1 million dollars .... my total operating budget for this office is $4.6 million and with that budget we prosecute 1,900 felonies, per year." He estimated that the appellate costs are even greater--up to $18 million through all the appeals. Geographic disparities in applying Colorado's death penalty raise questions of fairness: "Though Boulder County has had plenty of heinous murders over the years, there has never been a death verdict imposed here in the nearly 140 years since statehood," he wrote. Meanwhile, he noted, counties with similar crimes have a number of pending capital cases. Read the entire op-ed below.

STUDIES: Colorado's Death Penalty Rarely Applied and Arbitrary

A new study conducted by law professors Justin Marceau (left) and Sam Kamin (middle) of the University of Denver and Wanda Foglia (right) of Rowan University found that the death penalty in Colorado is applied so rarely as to render the system unconstitutional.  The authors concluded that Colorado's death penalty law is applicable to almost all first-degree murders, but is imposed so infrequently that it fails to provide the kind of careful narrowing of cases required by the Supreme Court in Furman v. Georgia (1972).  In this groundbreaking study, the researchers reviewed all first-degree murder cases in the state between 1999 and 2010. They found that 92 percent of the 544 first-degree murder cases in that time span contained at least one aggravating factor that made the defendant eligible for the death penalty. However, prosecutors filed notices of intent to seek the death penalty in only 15 murder cases and pursued the death penalty at trial in only five of those cases — a 1% rate among death-eligible cases. The authors wrote, “Under the Colorado capital sentencing system, many defendants are eligible but almost none are actually sentenced to death. Because Colorado's aggravating factors so rarely result in actual death sentences, their use in any given case is a violation of the Eighth Amendment.”