Anna Staver | Denver Post
Death penalty opponents are cautiously optimistic that after five failed attempts over the last two decades they will finally succeed in pushing through a repeal of Colorado’s capital punishment law.
A Senate bill introduced Monday asks the General Assembly to end the death penalty in Colorado. It will get its first hearing Wednesday.
“It’s not fair, and it is applied with bias,” Sen. Angela Williams, D-Denver, a bill sponsor, said of capital punishment. “When you look at it (in Colorado) there are three men who are African-American sitting on death row now. They all are from Arapahoe County. They all went to the same high school.”
Democrats control the Colorado House, Senate and governor’s office, but that’s no guarantee of success for this Democrat-led effort. The party also held the trifecta in 2013, but they failed to repeal the death penalty largely because then-Gov. John Hickenlooper signaled he might veto it in the wake of the Aurora theater shooting. Hickenlooper later changed his mind on capital punishment, but by then Democrats had lost control of the state Senate.
Still, the sponsors of this year’s bill see the tide moving in their favor. The state reinstated the death penalty in the 1970s but hasn’t put anyone to death in 22 years. Twenty U.S. states have outlawed it, and other states’ difficulty getting the drug cocktail for lethal injections has slowed executions elsewhere.
And Gov. Jared Polis says he will sign a repeal. In fact, he recently went a step further and told CPR News he would consider commuting the sentences of the three men currently on Colorado’s death row if the bill passes.
That news hit Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat, like a punch to the gut. Two of those men are there because they were convicted of killing her son and his fiancée.
“It’s hard for me to wrap my head around mercy for the merciless,” Fields said. “When you think about someone who has committed murder not just one time, not two times, but three times. I don’t know that mercy should be extended.”
Javad Marshall-Fields and Vivian Wolfe were killed in 2005 days before he was to testify against a man who shot three people at a July 4 party. After burying her only son, Fields decided to support the district attorney in seeking the death penalty against Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray. Their appeals are ongoing.
“Some crimes,” she said, “are so heinous that they should have the ultimate penalty.”
Fields isn’t the only elected official with a personal connection to the death penalty. Freshman Rep. Tom Sullivan, D-Centennial, whose son Alex died in the Aurora theater shooting, supported a bill in 2016 that would have made it easier to impose the death penalty. It failed.
Williams, on the opposite side of the death penalty debate, also has seen the impact of mass violence up close. She is from Oklahoma, where the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City was bombed in 1995.
“I had a family member who walked out the back side of that federal building,” Williams said. “She still deals with some of the mental challenges and the impacts of that.”
Williams stayed up most of the night when the government executed Timothy McVeigh, talking with family and following the news coverage.
“We look for closure so that the pain will go away,” Williams said. “Timothy McVeigh went to sleep because he died by lethal injection. He didn’t suffer, and the conversation all over Oklahoma City was, guess what, he was put to death but your pain is still there.”
Williams also has a son, and she worries that the death penalty has been disproportionately sought against people of color and used to pressure those same people to plead guilty to life in prison. A 2015 review of Colorado death penalty cases by the University of Denver found “prosecutors in Colorado were more likely to seek the death penalty against minority defendants than against white defendants.”
The repeal could pick up a few Republican votes to make up for the Democrats who oppose it.
Sen. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, said his Catholic faith leads him to believe people shouldn’t decide matters of life and death.
“I’m a firm believer that everyone faces a final judgment in the end,” Priola said. “I try to be pro-life on every piece of legislation.”
If the bill passes, voters in the Centennial State likely won’t be able to block it from becoming law. The bill has a safety clause, which means it takes effect immediately, giving voters no time to collect the signatures needed to put it on the ballot.
“There are people out there who think it should be referred to the voters,” Williams said, “but I believe that we are elected to represent the people and there are times on tough issues like this that they expect us to move our state forward.”
Fields, however, believes it should go to the voters.
“I think we trust voters on a variety of important things like legalizing marijuana, increasing taxes,” she said.