DENVER | A bill that would make it easier for Colorado juries to give the death penalty failed Wednesday when a Republican senator joined Democrats in saying that unanimous verdicts for capital punishment should stay a requirement.
The measure was inspired by two verdicts last year, in which jurors couldn’t agree on execution for mass murderers and the defendants received life in prison.
A Denver jury last summer refused to give the death penalty to a man who stabbed five people to death in a bar in 2012. A few weeks earlier, Arapahoe County jurors couldn’t agree on execution for theater shooter James Holmes, who killed 12 people in 2012.
The life sentence for Holmes in particular showed that Colorado’s death penalty system is “broken,” said Sen. Kevin Lundberg, the bill’s sponsor. His measure would have changed death verdict requirements from a 12-0 jury vote to 11-1.
“I believe it’s tainted the entire process, and we need to address this issue that the policy of Colorado of having the death penalty for the most heinous crimes is attainable,” Lundberg said.
Colorado has executed just one person in nearly half a century, and only three people sit on its death row.
Sen. Ellen Roberts, the Republican head of the committee that heard the bill, helped voted it down. It failed 3-2.
“The death sentence is a very drastic state action. We need to be absolutely sure,” Roberts of Durango said after the vote.
The hearing attracted a few dozen death penalty opponents, some of whom carried signs outside urging Colorado to continue requiring unanimous verdicts for the death penalty.
“The decision to impose the sentence of death is probably the most serious decision we ask any citizen sitting on a jury to make,” said Peter Severson, director of the Lutheran Advocacy Ministry-Colorado.
Only one witness testified in favor of the change — Tom Sullivan, father of theater shooting victim Alex Sullivan. He talked about how upset he was that the Holmes jury couldn’t agree on execution.
“I thought that the violence of this crime … would be enough for the verdict to be death. I was wrong,” Tom Sullivan said.
Roberts said before the vote that she “too was dumbfounded by the result of the Holmes trial,” adding that she doesn’t oppose the death penalty.