Withheld Evidence Could Risk Innocent Lives
In a recent op-ed in the Denver Post, Colorado defense attorney David Lane argued that examples of the state withholding important evidence in capital murder cases should be grounds for reconsidering the death penalty: "The death penalty in Colorado is a fatally flawed government program. The alternative is life with no possibility of parole. Jurors for many years have expressed a preference for that severe sanction, which is actually less costly than the death penalty." Lane cited a recent ruling by the Colorado Court of Appeals affirming the reversal of David Bueno's first-degree murder conviction, in which a death sentence had been sought, because the state failed to turn over evidence about other suspects. (Lane represents one of the co-defendants in the case.) Neither of the prosecutors responsible was disciplined for this breach of conduct, and one has since been elected the District Attorney of El Paso County. Lane also highlighted the cost to Colorado taxpayers: "[B]ecause of the built-in costs for a death penalty case, likely over $1 million was wasted in a failed effort to kill Bueno." Read the full op-ed below.
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COSTS: Death Penalty Cases in Colorado Take Six Times Longer Than Life Sentences
A new study of the cost of the death penalty in Colorado revealed that capital proceedings require six times more days in court and take much longer to resolve than life-without-parole (LWOP) cases. The study, published in the University of Denver Criminal Law Review, found that LWOP cases required an average of 24.5 days of in-court time, while the death-penalty cases required 147.6 days. The authors noted that selecting a jury in an LWOP case takes about a day and a half; in a capital case, jury selection averages 26 days. In measuring the comparative time it takes to go from charging a defendant to final sentencing, the study found that LWOP cases took an average of 526 days to complete; death cases took almost 4 calendar years longer--1,902 days. The study found that even when a death-penalty case ends in a plea agreement and a life sentence, the process takes a year and a half longer than an LWOP case with a trial. The authors, Justin Marceau (pictured) and Hollis Whitson, could find no evidence of deterrence from the state's death penalty and thus concluded, “Our findings are unequivocal: Colorado’s death penalty imposes tremendous costs on taxpayers and its benefits are, at best, speculative, and more likely, illusory.”
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Colorado Governor Indefinitely Stays Execution Over Concerns About Flawed System
On May 22, Governor John Hickenlooper of Colorado granted an indefinite stay of execution to Nathan Dunlap, who was facing execution in August. In his Executive Order, the governor expressed concerns about the state’s death penalty system, calling it flawed and inequitable. He also noted the national trend away from capital punishment, with five states recently voting to repeal the death penalty and other states rarely using it. Hickenlooper stated, “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 in this case was because of larger objections to the death penalty, and he was not granting clemency to Dunlap. He concluded, “It is a legitimate question whether we as a state should be taking lives.”
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NEW VOICES: Former Prosecutor Calls for Clemency in Upcoming Colorado Execution
The former Chief Deputy District Attorney from the county that prosecuted Nathan Dunlap has called on Colorado's governor to commute his death sentence to life without parole. Richard Bloch (pictured), who prosecuted dozens of homicide cases during his 20 years with the Arapahoe County DA’s office, said he believes the state’s capital punishment system is too broken to implement: “Having worked on many homicides, visited dozens of murder scenes, and, most importantly, spoken to many people who have committed violent actions against others, I understand from personal experience what so many studies show: that there is no evidence whatsoever that the death penalty deters crime and enhances public safety.” Bloch also noted the geographical and racial disparities in the state’s death penalty: all those on death row came from Arapahoe County and all are African American, even though blacks account for only 4.3% of the state’s population. Bloch wrote, “[W]e cannot ignore that the system that sentenced Mr. Dunlap to die is a system in crisis. Colorado can do better; Colorado is better than that.” Read full article below.
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EDITORIALS: Colorado Case Raises Doubts About Entire Death Penalty System
Colorado recently set an execution date in August for Nathan Dunlap, who has been convicted of multiple murders. This would be first execution in the state in 16 years. In an editorial, the Aurora Sentinel recommended that the governor spare his life, not because of doubts about his guilt, but because of doubts about other aspects of the process that led to his death sentence: "There is simply too much doubt about the effectiveness of the death penalty. There is too much doubt about whether Dunlap drew the sentence because of his race. There is too much doubt about whether Colorado residents have grown to see how barbaric and expensive it is. There is too much doubt about whether Dunlap’s circumstances, rather than his crimes, brought on a death sentence." The editors concluded an execution would be a step in the wrong direction for Colorado: "To move forward on this case with so much in doubt would only add another tragic crime to those that Dunlap has wrought upon all of us." Read the editorial below.
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NEW VOICES: Former Law Enforcement Officials, Judges, Faith Leaders Urge Commutation for Colorado Inmate
On May 6, more than 20 former judges and prosecutors, religious leaders, mental health experts, and many others called on Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper (pictured) to commute Nathan Dunlap's death sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The group's statement cited racial and geographic disparities in the state's application of capital punishment as reasons why Dunlap should not be executed. Among those sending letters supporting clemency were former Colorado Supreme Court Justice Jean Dubofsky, former Arapahoe County Deputy District Attorney Richard Bloch, Denver's Catholic Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila, and Rev. Dr. Jim Ryan of the Colorado Council of Churches, which represents over 850 member congregations. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize, also expressed support for clemency. A letter to the governor signed by former judges stated, “We urge you to grant clemency because the death penalty in Colorado is deeply flawed. These facts depict a system that acts in an arbitrary fashion, based on factors such as race and geography." The group noted that all three of those on Colorado's death row are African American, all from the same county, and all were under age 21 at the time of their crime.
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NEW VOICES: Questioning the Decision to Seek the Death Penalty Against James Holmes
Criminal Justice Professor James Acker of the University at Albany recently discussed the decision by the District Attorney to seek the death penalty against James Holmes, the man accused of killing 12 people and wounding many others at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. In addition to concerns about the defendant's possible mental illness, Acker raised a number of questions about this course of action: "Will the victims and their families somehow be made whole? Would the time and money devoted to achieving this man's death not be better spent on services and law enforcement initiatives meant to repair and prevent the mindless devastation of criminal homicide? Would this man's execution serve an ineffable impulse for justice?" In his op-ed for CNN, Acker also examined the reasons for the dramatic decline in the use of the death penalty in the U.S.: "a revulsion against the awful prospect of executing an innocent person; the racial and social class inequities imbued in the death penalty's administration; the enormous financial burden placed on state and local budgets in supporting capital prosecutions; the availability of life imprisonment without parole to keep the streets safe." He concluded by asking, "[W]hat good would be accomplished through this ritual act--[and would] the lives of the individual victims and Coloradoans generally  be made better, and justice served by his lethal injection." Read the full op-ed below.
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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.
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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.
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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.”
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