New Discussions with DPIC Podcast: Denver District Attorney Beth McCann on Criminal Justice Reform and Colorado’s Death-Penalty Repeal

In the April 2020 episode of Discussions with DPIC, Denver District Attorney Beth McCann (pictured) speaks with Death Penalty Information Center Executive Director Robert Dunham about Colorado’s repeal of capital punishment.

McCann was elected DA in 2016, as part of a nationwide wave of reform-oriented prosecutors. Both as prosecutor and in her eight years in the Colorado legislature, McCann has advocated for broad criminal justice reforms, including the abolition of the death penalty. In her discussion with Dunham, she describes the major societal shift away from capital punishment, Colorado’s efforts at abolition, and the role of prosecutors in shaping change.

McCann discusses the dramatic shift from prosecutors taking a “tough on crime” stance in support of capital punishment to the growing number of prosecutors who now seek systemic reforms and have called for a reduction or end to the death penalty. She said the change is part of a public reconsideration of the legal system, noting, “Data is now sparking people to really think about ‘what are we doing in the criminal justice system and how can we make it work better?’”

McCann says the new generation of reform prosecutorsof which she is a part — is “interested in looking at new ways because we’re recognizing that the old ways haven’t always served us well. … How do we really prevent crime? How do we keep people from getting involved in the system? And if they do, are there alternatives to incarceration or mass incarceration?” She says rethinking criminal justice “in a more enlightened way” means “looking at other things besides just imprisonment.” For prosecutors “who are more oriented toward criminal justice reform,” she says, “it’s part of [their] thinking … that they would not see the death penalty as an appropriate punishment.”

Dunham asked McCann about the use of the death penalty as a negotiation device, a practice that he noted was a factor in many of the homicide exonerations described in the National Registry of Exonerations 2019 report. McCann, who has previously expressed opposition to the use of capital punishment as a means of obtaining guilty pleas, said, “We shouldn’t be filing cases unless we can prove them, and we shouldn’t be using the threat of killing someone … to get a plea to first degree murder.”

McCann rejects the myth that the death penalty is a deterrent to crime. “Most offenders who commit extreme acts of violence assume that they’re not going to get caught, and they don’t think about the consequence,” she said. “We have the Aurora theater shooter, and it clearly did not deter him.” Moreover, she said, “since I’ve been the DA, we haven’t seen a big spike in horrific murders in Denver [even though] people know that I’m not going to bring the death penalty.”

Though McCann has not sought the death penalty during her tenure as DA, she has worked in prosecutorial offices in which death sentences were being sought. She said that, because of the extreme nature of the crimes involved and the challenges of handling a death penalty case, “It takes an enormous toll on the office as a whole, really, emotionally, as well as resource-wise.” “Seeking the death penalty is the most difficult and gut-wrenching decision that a prosecutor makes,” she added.

The discussion concluded with McCann reflecting on her move from the state legislature to becoming District Attorney. “It’s important that we have someone [as DA] who is trying to improve the criminal justice system,” she said. She also believes that because of the relationships she developed with other lawmakers during her tenure as a state representative, she can “influence and help shape legislation” by working to ensure that legislators understand the realities of the criminal justice system and the potential consequences of their legislation.

Ultimately, McCann said she found that she could do more as a prosecutor to affect people’s lives than she could as a legislator. “When you’re in charge of an office, you have more ability to actually make those individual differences. … This is a better position for me to actually accomplish some change.”

Sources

Discussions with DPIC, Denver District Attorney Beth McCann on Colorado’s Death-Penalty Repeal, April 10, 2020. Read the tran­script here.