Death Penalty: Yes
Sunset from Denver's Daniel's Park, summer 2000.
The first execution in Colorado was the hanging of John Stoefel in 1859. All executions were carried out by hanging until 1934, when the state adopted lethal gas as its new execution method. Colorado switched to lethal injection in 1988.
Perhaps the most famous death penalty cases in Colorado are two that did not result in death sentences.
On August 7, 2015, after a more than six-month trial that cost Colorado taxpayers more than $5 million, an Aurora, Colorado jury sentenced James Holmes to life in prison without the possibility of parole for a 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 resulted in a sentence of life without parole. Holmes had offered to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of life without parole, but the prosecution rejected the plea. Holmes then 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, but spared him the death penalty. After the trial, jurors said that the prosecution had not persuaded three of the jurors to impose death.
Several months later, a Denver jury returned a life sentence in the capital trial of Dexter Lewis in the stabbing deaths of 5 people in a Denver bar in 2012. After less than 3 hours of deliberation, the jury determined that the aggravating factors relating to the killing did not outweigh Lewis' mitigating evidence detailing the extensive history of abuse and neglect in his upbringing, including chronic alcohol abuse by his mother while she was pregnant and nearly daily beatings when he was a child. The defense also presented mental health evidence of the long-term effects of severe child abuse.
Currently there are three people awaiting execution, all African Americans who attended Aurora High School:
1) Nathan Dunlap who was condemned for shooting and killing four people at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant. On May 22, 2013, Governor John Hickenlooper issued an Executive Order granting an indefinite stay of execution to Dunlap, who was facing execution that August. The governor's statement accompanying this reprieve said “If the State of Colorado is going to undertake the responsibility of executing a human being, the system must operate flawlessly. Colorado’s system for capital punishment is not flawless.” The governor underscored that his decision to grant a reprieve, which has been contrued as a moratorium on executions in the state, was because of larger objections to the death penalty, and that he was not granting clemency to Dunlap.
2) Sir Mario Owens who was convicted and received a jury's death determination in 2008 for the murder of a young couple, Javad Marshall-Fields and his fiancee, Vivian Wolfe. The victims were prosecution witnesses in a murder trial involving Owens.
3) Robert Ray who ordered the murders committed by Sir Mario Owens, of witnesses Javad Marshall-Fields and Vivian Wolfe in his pending murder trial.
On January 7, 2011, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter granted a full and unconditional posthumous pardon to Joe Arridy, who had been convicted and executed as an accomplice to a murder that occurred in 1936. The pardon came 72 years after Arridy's execution and is the first such pardon in Colorado history. A press release from the governor's office stated, "[A]n overwhelming body of evidence indicates the 23-year-old Arridy was innocent, including false and coerced confessions, the likelihood that Arridy was not in Pueblo at the time of the killing, and an admission of guilt by someone else." The governor also pointed to Arridy's intellectual disabilities. He had an IQ of 46 and functioned like a toddler. The governor said, "Granting a posthumous pardon is an extraordinary remedy. But the tragic conviction of Mr. Arridy and his subsequent execution on Jan. 6, 1939, merit such relief based on the great likelihood that Mr. Arridy was, in fact, innocent of the crime for which he was executed, and his severe mental disability at the time of his trial and execution. Pardoning Mr. Arridy cannot undo this tragic event in Colorado history. It is in the interests of justice and simple decency, however, to restore his good name."
Milestones in Abolition/Reinstatement
Colorado abolished the death penalty in 1897 and reinstated it in 1901.
In 2009, the Colorado House of Representatives passed a death penalty abolition bill by a 33-32 vote. The bill failed in the state Senate by a 17-18 vote. The bill would have shifted death penalty prosecution funds to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation for the purpose of solving cold cases. Officials estimate abolishing the death penalty would save the state approximately $1 million a year. There are currently about 1,400 unsolved murder cases in Colorado, but the Colorado Bureau of Investigations cold case unit has only one staff member. Proponents claimed that the $1 million could have added eight people to the unit.
Other Interesting Facts
- As a matter of policy, the Colorado DOC automatically assigns death-sentenced prisoners to administrative segregation, the highest-security classification, which critics refer to as solitary confinement. Until now, the DOC also required that death-sentenced prisoners be assigned to the state's dedicated "supermax" prison, Colorado State Penitentiary (CSP), where all 734 prisoners are isolated, locked down 23 hours a day, and denied outdoor exercise. At CSP, prisoners' only opportunity for out-of-cell recreation is one hour in a separate concrete-walled cell that contains a pull-up bar.
Prison officials usually maintain that with good behavior, "supermax" prisoners can earn their way to general population facilities, where prisoners can go outdoors and enjoy additional privileges. Mr. Dunlap, however, was not confined to "supermax" because of any violent or disruptive conduct in prison. Despite his good behavior in "supermax," he was not eligible to "earn" his way out, because DOC policy assigned death-sentenced prisoners to CSP.
Mr. Dunlap filed a lawsuit and acted as his own attorney until ACLU Cooperating took over the lawyering in 2010.
Under the terms of the settlement, Mr. Dunlap was moved from CSP to the Sterling Correctional Facility, where he still is held in solitary confinement, but has the opportunity to exercise five days a week in an area open to the sky and elements, twice as large as the exercise rooms at CSP that he was forced to use for 15 years. The DOC also chose to transfer the two other Colorado death row inmates to the Sterling Correctional Facility.
- Colorado has executed only one person, Gary Davis, since capital punishment was reinstated.
(For additional information, see J.Ingold, A history of the death penalty in Colorado, Denver Post blogs, The Rap Sheet (March 23, 2012).)
Many thanks to the Colorado Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty for contributing to this page.