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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.” 


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High Trial Costs Put Death Penalty Under Scrutiny in Arizona, Colorado

The high cost of capital trials has put the death penalty under scrutiny in Arizona and Colorado. In Mohave County, Arizona, where two capital cases have already cost about $239,000 this fiscal year, County Supervisors have been told that the defense costs for trying these two cases and pursuing three other capital cases that are currently on appeal will be $380,000 this fiscal year, with comparable costs expected for next fiscal year. County Supervisors approved an expenditure of an additional $344,000 this year for the capital trials. County supervisors questioned County Attorney Matt Smith on the process for determining whether to seek the death penalty. Smith said his office considers the aggravating factors in the case, as well as the strength of the defense's mitigating factors. Though it is not required, Smith said he also considers the costs to the county before seeking the death penalty. Mohave County has seven defendants on death row, but only one defendant from the county has been executed. In Colorado, The Denver Post reports that the trial of James Holmes, which resulted in a sentence of life without parole, cost taxpayers more than $3 million, including nearly $1.6 million in federal monies. Holmes had offered to plead guilty if the prosecution dropped its quest for the death penalty. When it did not, the resulting trial was one of the longest in state history. Among the costs for the trial were two psychiatric evaluations ($600,000), victims' services and travel expenses to attend the trial ($1.2 million, paid out of a federal grant), and $500,000 in state funding for the District Attorney's office. The Post said the actual price tag for the Holmes case was even higher, because these totals do not include the salaries of state officials, including judges, prosecutors, and sheriffs, who spent large amounts of time on the case instead of other cases, but would have been paid regardless. If those salaries are included, the Post said, the cost of the case soars to more than $7 million. Public defender expenditures were also not included, because they are protected by attorney-client confidentiality.


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NEW VOICES: Retired Colorado Corrections Officer Raises Questions of Deterrence, Innocence

In a recent op-ed for The Denver Post, retired corrections officer and military veteran Pete Lister offered a critique of the death penalty, saying it fails as a deterrent, risks executing innocent people, and costs more than life without parole. "Capital punishment has not, in a single state, proven to be a deterrent to capital crime." Lister said. "Society consists of human beings who make mistakes. There are those who are, occasionally, negligent, and some who are even dishonest or unethical. We are faced with the troubling fact that if we, as a society, err in a capital case, the sentence is irreversible." Drawing on his experience as a corrections officer, Lister compared capital punishment to life without parole, saying, "involuntary incarceration is not the life of Riley that some would have you believe" and asking whether "life in prison without the hope of parole" may "actually [be] worse than a death sentence." Discussing the risk or error, he said, "When we, society, wrongfully convict someone, whether through malfeasance or neglect, or whether the technology extant at time of trial was insufficient to prove innocence, then we, society, have a responsibility to release him, to publicly acknowledge the error, and allow that citizen to move past the horror that we, society, have inflicted. How do we do that after we've put him to death?" Lister also noted that the cost of capital punishment, which he said "far exceeds the cost of incarcerati[on] even for life, ... is more than simply financial. It's been argued that voting for execution takes a terrible emotional toll on jury members." He concludes with a question: "Whether you believe the death penalty is justifiable, if you were the one being accused of a murder you had not committed, where would you stand on this issue?"


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