Colorado’s Death Penalty Repeal: How It Happened—and Why

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Colorado State Capitol, Denver. Photo by J. Stephen Conn via Flickr

There are no easy wins when it comes to repealing the death penalty.

Not ever.

Emotions play a central role. They are complicated and sticky, and don’t fit neatly into the partisan framework that overwhelms public opinion and steers lawmakers in nearly every decision they make.

In Colorado, Democrats hold the majority in both chambers of the state legislature, as well as the offices of the governor and attorney general. But it would have been a mistake to assume that repeal of the death penalty was a done deal.

Two Democratic lawmakers – one in each chamber of the legislature – have lost children to murder. They both supported retaining the death penalty. The recognition of the immense trauma these members have experienced, and the desire to not inflict further harm on them, created a fraught atmosphere, with many members of the legislature feeling torn between their emotions, their personal relationships, and their convictions.

But these lawmakers weren’t the only victims’ family members with strong opinions on repeal in the state.

Another 70 murder victims’ family members from Colorado called on lawmakers to finally put an end to capital punishment. Their testimony laid bare the ongoing trauma created by the death penalty system.

“The reality of the death penalty is that it drags on for decades,” these families said in a letter to lawmakers.

“Victims’ families in capital cases go back to court for years on end. The press replays the details of the crime again and again…This system burdens the justice system, taking resources from both programs that are proven to improve public safety and also from solving the over 1,300 homicide cold cases in Colorado.”

These families spent long hours at the Capitol, patiently waiting to give testimony and holding press conferences to make their voices heard. They faced disrespect on multiple occasions. During one committee hearing, two lawmakers left the room, missing the testimony of over a dozen victims’ family members who favor repeal.

They discussed how the death penalty compounded the pain they experienced, how it prevented them from being able to rebuild their lives, and how it failed to offer meaningful services they needed in the wake of their losses.

Ironically, these same two lawmakers would later claim during the floor debate – to justify their vote to retain the death penalty – that the voices of victims had been ignored during the discussion of the bill.

jared polis

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis by Clever Poet via Flickr

Other opponents of repeal included a small number of district attorneys who frequently pursue death penalty trials. Like the rest of the country, the death penalty is geographically isolated in Colorado, with only a few jurisdictions handing down – or even seeking – death sentences.

In fact, of the 529 death penalty eligible cases during the period since reinstatement of the death penalty in the 1970s, only one person was executed, and three others remained on Colorado’s death row. All three came from only one county and even went to the same high school.

Even this limited death penalty cost taxpayers millions of dollars with little to nothing to show for it.

Far from providing a deterrent effect, crime actually increased in the months leading up to repeal – an obvious sign that those millions could be better spent on solving more cold cases or on programs that actually work to prevent violence in the first place.

The state’s system also had overt racial and socioeconomic bias, with all three Death Row inhabitants being black.

In the end, a trio of pro-life, limited-government Republicans helped pave the way for repeal. Senators Kevin Priola, Jack Tate, and Owen Hill not only voted for repeal, but they added their names as sponsors before the start of the legislative session, citing these costs, the arbitrariness of death sentences, and the emotional pleas of victims’ families and those involved in carrying out death sentences as reasons for repeal.

Gov. Jared Polis signed the bill into law on March 23, at the same time commuting the sentences of the three men on death row to sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

That made Colorado the 22nd state to end its death penalty.

Combined with the three other states where governors have halted executions, half the country has now done away with capital punishment. Repeal advocates expect to see several of Colorado’s neighbors capitalize on this momentum and pass their own bills in the next couple of years.

In the aftermath, those who made repeal possible are looking ahead to a new era of criminal justice in the state.

Hannah Cox

Hannah Cox

Colorado now has an opportunity to build a system that focuses on public safety outcomes, restorative justice and the protection of human life. With all the death and destruction surrounding us in 2020, that’s never been more important.

Hannah Cox is the National Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. Previously, she has served as Director of Outreach for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank; Director of Development for the Tennessee Firearms Association; and as a policy advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

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