Colorado death penalty repeal effort is yanked, with Democratic votes in question

Jesse Paul | The Colorado Sun

Colorado lawmakers on Tuesday nixed their effort to repeal the state’s death penalty after it appeared Democrats lacked the votes needed to push the measure through, emphasizing a split in the party that has been widening for weeks.

Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat, tearfully asked that Senate Bill 182be laid over until May 4, the day after the 2019 legislative session ends, effectively yanking the measure. She was a prime sponsor of the legislation.

“I could ask you to cast your vote publicly, to reject this irrevocably cruel, unusual and ghastly practice,” Gonzales said. “… I want you all to know that I’m going to give Senate Bill 182 a dignified death, not a torturous one.”

Democrats hold a slim 19-16 majority in the Colorado Senate, where the bill had been on hold for a month while proponents tried to secure enough votes for passage. At least one Democrat — Sen. Rhonda Fields, of Aurora — had vowed to vote “no” on the bill. Another four were either on the fence about their support for the measure or haven’t publicly said where they stand.

Fields’ son, Javad, and his fiancée, Vivian Wolfe, were killed by two of the three men on death row. The veteran lawmaker was frustrated with how Senate Bill 182 was unveiled, complaining on the Senate floor that not enough time was given to consider the measure.

Fields said the entire process had been an emotional one for her.

“To have this bill out there, hovering, for weeks and weeks and weeks was very unsettling to me,” Fields said Tuesday. “I’m feeling just numb. I don’t think there’s any winners in what happened today. I’m not elated. I’m really not sad. I’m just feeling really numb and empty inside.”

Democrats in the Senate laid the bill over for weeks to allow for more time for the legislation to be considered and to try to grow support, but they shelved it indefinitely on Tuesday when it appeared the measure had no chance of passage.

Sen. Angela Williams, a Denver Democrat who was leading the push for the legislation with Gonzales, blamed members of her party for not being able to get the bill through.

“This is a progressive issue,” she told reporters. “So I’m extremely disappointed in legislators who were not able to determine where they are and take a tough vote, because that’s what we are elected to do. So whether you support or oppose, I’m extremely disappointed for those who held out and were not more verbal about where they are on this policy.”

She added: “For those who were hiding behind process, I don’t support that.”

Gonzales pointed out the amount of time that the legislation had been waiting for discussion before the full Senate.

“There are those who would say that this bill was not laid out in the right way,” Gonzales said Tuesday on the Senate floor. “That there was not enough to process a bill that not only requires a decision on a policy but a moral decision. As of today, Senate Bill 182 has been under consideration by this body for an entire month.”

But Fields said she felt that month was not spent actually discussing the bill. She urged Williams to discuss her complaints directly with the Democrats who wouldn’t commit to supporting or rejecting the legislation.

“I believe we shouldn’t make those kinds of complaints without going directly to the person,” Fields said. “So if she believes that people down here have to make tough choices — and we do — and if she knows who they are, then she has a responsibility to take that to them directly versus sharing it with the press. If that’s how she feels then she needs to let them know.”

Assuming that Democrats do not revisit the decision to sideline the bill, it will mark the fifth time since 2000 Colorado lawmakers have brought but been unable to pass an effort to abolish capital punishment.

This year, factors for the bill’s passage seemed to align. Democrats control both the Colorado House and Senate and Gov. Jared Polis favors repealing the death penalty. “I thought this was year when Democrats took the majority back, so that was back in November,” Williams said.

Gonzales and Williams vowed that the death penalty repeal effort would be brought back in 2020. “I commit that we’re going to bring it back and we’re going to bring it back and we’re going to bring it back until we repeal this barbaric piece of legislation,” Williams said.

There is no election before then, however, meaning the bill’s sponsors will face the same legislative makeup as this year.

Polis said in a written statement that he hopes lawmakers will continue working on a repeal effort. “Hopefully by next session we can end this ineffective, expensive and discriminatory practice,” he said.

Republicans in the Colorado Senate celebrated the decision Tuesday, reiterating their calls for the question of whether to abolish capital punishment to go before voters.

“Whether or not you support or oppose the death penalty, it is important to recognize the emotional weight that this issue carries to many in our state,” state Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, said in a written statement. “I’m thankful that the Senate recognized this and decided to postpone this debate until we can conduct a deliberative process with victims, advocates, activists and legal professionals together to reach a conclusion that includes all voices.”

Senate Bill 182 only received one committee hearing and vote before meeting its demise.

There are three people on Colorado’s death row. They include: Nathan Dunlap, who shot and killed four people at an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese in 1993, and Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray, who in 2005 killed Javad Marshall Fields and Wolfe.

The appellate hearings for Owens and Ray are ongoing. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper granted Dunlap an indefinite reprieve in 2013.

Colorado has not executed someone since 1997.

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