Even if the jury decides to sentence James Holmes to death in the penalty phase of his trial, which begins today, there are questions about whether the sentence will be imposed. In the time since the Aurora shooting case got underway, Gov. John Hickenlooper has said no one in Colorado will be executed as long as he is in office, reports the Los Angeles Times. “My hope is that [Hickenlooper] remembers all the people who were in court today,” said Marcus Weaver, who was shot in the theater next to a friend who was killed. “All the names that were read, all the counts that were read, and takes that moratorium off the death penalty so that we can truly have justice for the victims and the families.” Juries across the U.S. continue to hand down death sentences, and prosecutors continue to seek them. The effective moratorium in Colorado, where no capital punishment can be carried out unless the governor signs the death warrant, is part of a political retreat that is gaining momentum.
The number of U.S. executions has dropped dramatically since 1999, along with the number of death sentences handed down by juries. Governors in four states, including Hickenlooper, have declared that they will not sign death warrants during their terms, citing the uneven way the punishment is carried out. This year, for the first time since these policies were adopted in Oregon, Colorado, Washington and Pennsylvania, major capital trials are taking place in two of those states that are testing juries’ willingness to carry out the ultimate punishment. “What’s the role of these reprieves? I don’t think there’s an independent effect, but it’s part of an overall drift away from the death penalty,” said Michael Radelet, a University of Colorado sociology professor who has studied the punishment for 35 years.