A 1998 triple murder in Aurora, Co., seemed like a textbook case for the death penalty, the Rocky Mountain News says: premeditated murder mixed with torture and rape; an eyewitness alive. Five years later, juries have convicted three men of first-degree murder, but none has drawn a death sentence. “The U.S Supreme Court has been searching now for 30 years to find ways to implement the death penalty to make sure it’s reserved for the worst of the worst,” said Michael Radelet, a University of Colorado sociologist who studies the death penalty. “And even though that sounds easy, it’s not.”
In 1995, Colorado lawmakers decided to have three-judge panels, not juries, handle sentencing in capital cases. The way the Aurora case turned, out, the News says, from the prosecutors’ standpoint, there were three equally culpable defendants, three convictions, no death sentences, and no acceptable explanation. “We’re talking about three people who were murdered, and a fourth who they tried to murder,” said Paul Wolff, director of appeals for the Arapahoe County District Attorney.
Radelet said severity of crimes has little to do with whether criminals are sentenced to death. “The pattern is lack of a pattern,” Radelet said. “That is, if you try to predict death sentences based on level of aggravation, it doesn’t work, especially in Colorado.”