NEW VOICES: Prosecutors in Colorado and Nevada Call for Death-Penalty Repeal
Two prosecutors with different philosophical perspectives on capital punishment have called on their respective states to abolish capital punishment. Boulder County, Colorado, District Attorney Michael Dougherty (pictured, left), who opposes capital punishment in principle, and former Washoe County, Nevada, homicide prosecutor Thomas E. Viloria (pictured, right), who has successfully obtained four death verdicts, have added their voices to support efforts to repeal the death penalty in their states. Though approaching the issue with different ideologies, both prosecutors agreed that the death penalty should be eliminated because of its high cost, its ineffectiveness as a crime deterrent, and its potentially detrimental effects on victims’ families.
In comments to legislators on March 4, Dougherty said, “I’m strongly opposed to the death penalty, and it should be abolished in Colorado. … I don't believe any state or country should put its citizens to death.” The high costs in time and resources can’t be justified, he also stated, particularly in a jurisdiction such as Boulder in which juries don’t believe it should be imposed. “I talk to victims' families about it,” Dougherty said, “and one of the things we always focus on in these conversations, is it is up to the jury to decide on a sentence, and a Boulder jury would have to reach a unanimous verdict finding the death penalty sentence is morally just. As Boulder district attorney, I will not simply ignore the law that allows for use of the death penalty, but I must weigh a prosecutor’s ethical obligation to only pursue charges that can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. I don’t believe a Boulder jury would reach a unanimous verdict finding a death sentence is justified.” Dougherty also expressed qualms about using the threat of death to obtain plea deals. “I have significant ethical concerns if people were ever to use the death penalty to motivate a guilty plea to a lesser sentence,” he said. “I would never want any prosecutor to say that a defendant has to accept life without parole in order to avoid the death penalty.”
Viloria has also come to oppose capital punishment, but he took a very different route in reaching that conclusion. In an op-ed for the Reno Gazette Journal, Viloria wrote about his experiences prosecuting five death-penalty cases and obtaining death sentences in four. “In each of the cases I prosecuted, the victim’s family members believed the death penalty would help close their emotional wounds,” Viloria said. “Yet because none of those inmates have been executed many years later, family members haven’t received that promised closure.” He said “[d]eath penalty cases rightfully demand greater scrutiny, so murder victim family members often suffer more trauma than murder victim families in non-death penalty cases. They must endure more media coverage, court appearances, and appeals, plus, often times, a reversal of the death sentence.” Viloria also pointed to systemic problems in the administration of capital punishment, writing that the death penalty “is often unevenly and unfairly applied, partly because it is sought at the sole discretion of a particular prosecutor or prosecutorial administration. It is extremely costly to taxpayers and, because the state has no drug supply to administer an execution, it is uncertain if Nevada can even carry out the death penalty.” Viloria urged the Nevada legislators to conduct a hearing on the abolition bill “so lawmakers can decide the very serious issue of whether to maintain our broken death penalty system.”
Legislatures in Nevada and Colorado are both considering bills that would abolish the death penalty. Colorado’s bill, SB 19-182, passed the Senate Judiciary Committee by a 3-2 vote on March 6, 2019. Nevada’s bill, AB 149, has not yet received a hearing.
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Colorado Governor Likely to Commute Death Sentences if State Abolishes Death Penalty
Colorado Governor Jared Polis (pictured) has said he will “strongly consider” commuting the death sentences of the three men on the state’s death row if the state abolishes the death penalty. In a February 7, 2019 interview on Colorado Public Radio, Polis told Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner, “if the legislature sends us a bill to eliminate the death penalty in Colorado, I would sign that bill … [and] I would certainly take that as a strong indication that those who are currently on death row should have their sentences commuted to life in prison.” Polis, who voiced his opposition to the death penalty during his 2018 campaign for governor, reiterated his views during the Colorado Matters interview. “I think it’s not cost effective, I think it’s not an effective deterrent,” he said. “If the State Republicans and Democrats were to say, and I were to sign a bill that said we no longer have the death penalty in Colorado, whether it's formally in the bill or not,” the Governor said, “then I would strongly consider making sure that penalty that is no longer on the books in Colorado is not carried out for anybody who's in that process.”
Colorado’s previous governor, John Hickenlooper, imposed a moratorium on executions in 2013. Hickenlooper said he initially had supported the death penalty, but changed his views when he learned more about the issue: “My whole life I was in favor of the death penalty. But then you get all this information: it costs 10 times, maybe 15 times more money to execute someone than to put someone in prison for life without parole. There’s no deterrence to having capital punishment. And I don’t know about you, but when I get new facts, I’ll change my opinion. I didn’t know all of this stuff.” Former prosecutor and state representative Doug Friednash, who sponsored a bill to expand Colorado’s death penalty to include multiple murders committed during a single criminal episode, has undergone a similar evolution. In a February 1 op-ed in the The Denver Post, Friednash called on the legislature to repeal its capital punishment law. “Twenty-five years ago, as a freshman House Democrat, I sponsored legislation to expand the death penalty,” Friednash wrote. “I was wrong.” The law he supported was used to prosecute James Holmes, who killed 12 people in a shooting at an Aurora movie theater in 2012, and Dexter Lewis, who stabbed five people to death in a Denver bar. Juries sentenced both to life. Holmes’ case, he says, illustrates some of the problems with the death penalty – the law failed to deter Holmes and his capital trial, which resulted in a life sentence, cost taxpayers approximately $5 million. Holmes was tried in Colorado’s 18th Judicial District, where defendants are "four times more likely to face a death prosecution than elsewhere in the state.” All three of the state’s death-row prisoners are Black men who were tried in that district. Friednash concludes, “It’s time to close this chapter in Colorado’s history books. The Colorado legislature should abolish the death penalty this session. And then Gov. Jared Polis should commute the death sentences of our three death-row inmates to life without the possibility of parole.”
In a February 9 editorial, the Boulder Daily Camera also urged the legislature to abolish the death penalty. Citing the lack of deterrent effect and the high cost of capital punishment, the paper wrote: “If the worth of a public policy is its ability to achieve policy objectives, then capital punishment is a failure.” The editorial also noted “great economic, geographic, and racial disparities” in Colorado’s imposition of the death penalty. “The location of the county line in relation to a crime,” it said, “should not determine whether a defendant lives or dies, and neither should the skin color of the accused.” And in conclusion, it pointed to former Governor Bill Ritter’s 2011 posthumous pardon of Joe Arridy, who was wrongfully executed by Colorado in 1939 despite what Ritter called “an overwhelming body of evidence” that Arridy was innocent. “The state-sanctioned killing of an innocent person is more morally repugnant than the execution of a guilty one could be morally just,” the editorial board wrote. “For this reason alone — given that innocent people almost certainly die under a regime of capital punishment — Colorado should abolish the death penalty.”
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