A death sentence doesn’t bring a slain family member back to life.
It’s one of the reasons Alice Randolph says she’s opposed to the death penalty, which may be repealed by the state legislature this year. Randolph’s son, Loren Anthony Collins, was murdered outside of an Aurora Safeway in 2010.
Collins was shot by Ishmael Edward Figueroa, who was convicted of first-degree murder. Figueroa, then 23, was arguing with a group of people when he pulled out a handgun and shot at the group. A bullet hit Collins in the neck. He was 20 years old.
“So the (District Attorney) called me and they asked me if I wanted to pursue the death penalty,” Randolph said. “It was just ‘no.’”
Randolph said she didn’t have to think about her answer at all.
“I listened to the district attorney out in Arapahoe County, and he kept saying how heinous the situation was,” she recalled. “So my thought was, well, how do you measure heinous? How do I say that?”
Randolph is part of a group of nearly two dozen people in Colorado who have had family members murdered and are advocating with the Colorado branch of the American Civil Liberties Union for the repeal of the death penalty.
Democratic lawmakers have made multiple attempts to repeal the state’s capital punishment rules in recent years, but all have failed, primarily stymied by Republicans, who held control of the Senate for the past several years.
Former Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper caught the blame for the most recent death-penalty bill failure after critics said he signaled that he wouldn’t sign it.
Democrats and proponents of the repeal bill said they ran into trouble last year by trying to rush the measure. But this year, it’s likely the repeal could see the governor’s desk.
The repeal bill boasts a trio of Republican sponsors in the Senate: Jack Tate of Centennial, Kevin Priola of Brighton and Owen Hill of Colorado Springs. Priola was the only Republican to back a nearly identical repeal proposal last year.
“I am sensitive to victims and their families and what we can do to help them. I also appreciate being tough on crime,” Tate told the Sentinel. “Capital punishment does not help these areas, and experience shows it is ineffective, expensive and carries the risk of executing an innocent person. From a philosophical perspective, I now don’t think th state should have power over life and death.”
While Priola said repealing the death penalty aligns with his Catholic faith, it also makes sense to him as a fiscal conservative.
Coloradans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty have calculated that a death penalty trial can cost taxpayers up to $3.5 million, whereas a non-capital first degree murder trial costs around $150,000.
Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, is also sponsoring the bill. In the House, Reps. Jeni Ardnt and Adrienne Benavidez, both Democrats, have signed on as prime sponsors.
If approved by state lawmakers, Gov. Jared Polis said he’d sign the bill.
The state hasn’t executed a convict since 1997. In 2013, Former Gov. John Hickenlooper indefinitely punted the decision of whether to sign the death warrant for a 44-year-old Aurora man currently facing a death sentence.
Whether state officials could even successfully perform an execution has also been called into question in recent years, as the state can no longer obtain the drug legally required to perform legal injections: sodium thiopental. Last year, in a story by the Colorado Sun, officials suggested the drug could still be acquired if necessary.
Much of the state Capitol testimony in recent years centered on the death penalty has been on the three black men who currently comprise Colorado’s death row: Nathan Dunlap, Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray.
All three men are from Aurora, committed the crimes for which they were convicted in the city, and attended the same high school: Overland High School in the Cherry Creek School District.
Dunlap, 43, faces the death penalty for shooting and killing four people, and seriously injuring a fifth, when he was 19 years old at an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese in 1993.
Owens and Ray face death sentences for shooting and killing several people, including Javad Marshall-Fields and his fiance, Vivian Wolfe.
Marshall-Fields was the son of Aurora Democratic State Sen. Rhonda Fields, who has said she won’t support the measure again this year.
“I just don’t think we should be telegraphing across our state that you can kill as many people as you can and your penalty is predetermined,” Fields said. “I just don’t think that is a true form of justice.”
Fields has repeatedly advocated for asking voters to weigh in on a potential death penalty repeal.
“I believe this measure should be decided by the citizens rather than the lawmakers who sit under this Gold Dome,” she said in a recent interview.
DEATH PENALTY BY THE NUMBERS
3 – The number of men on death row in Colorado
$3.5 million – The average cost of a capital punishment trial
1 – Executions since the death penalty was reinstated in Colorado in 1976
$53,596 – The average cost to house an inmate on death row per year
2 – The number of times 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler has sought the death penalty
4,370 – The average number of hours a district attorney spends on a capital punishment trial
158- The number of countries that have banned the death penalty
90% – The percentage of Colorado cases that were death penalty eligible between 1999 and 2010
According to draft language unveiled Tuesday afternoon, the 2020 repeal measure stipulates that no defendants convicted of class-one felonies in Colorado after July 1, 2020 could face death as a possible sentence. While the measure would not specifically apply to the three Aurora men currently sitting on death row, Gov. Polis has indicated he would commute the trio of sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler said he intends to testify in opposition to this year’s proposed repeal, just as he did last year.
Like Fields, Brauchler has fiercely advocated for sending the question of whether the Centennial State should maintain capital punishment to the ballot.
“It’s very frustrating and disingenuous to not send this to Colorado voters,” he said.
Brauchler, who prosecuted Aurora theater shooter James Holmes, said he believes groups such as the ACLU are railroading legislative proposals in lieu of pursuing a ballot measure because voters would likely quash such an initiative.
A 2015 Quinnipiac poll showed 63 percent of voters supported the death penalty over a life sentence without a chance of parole for Holmes.
Death penalty proponents point out that the poll focused on Holmes, not the death penalty in general.
That same year, Michael Radelet, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado who has long studied capital punishment, balked at claims by Brauchler and others. He told The Sentinel that the death penalty in Colorado polls has generally tracked those in national ones. An October 2019 Gallup poll indicated a record 60 percent of Americans now prefer life sentences over death penalties in murder cases, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Aside from the method of repeal, removing the possibility of a death sentence from state law would strike any chance of further punishment for felons already sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, Brauchler said.
“If they kill an inmate or a guard, do we send them back to their cell?,” he mused. “No Jell-o? No Crayons? No Friday movie?”
Brauchler suggested that if passed, this year’s proposal would initiate a years-long process of watering down the state’s sentencing systems.
“The goal of these people is to ratchet down the penalties for people who kill,” he said of the ACLU and Democratic lawmakers.
Tate, said his sponsorship of the bill came with a lot of thought, but he said he hasn’t heard a lot of slippery slope arguments at the Capitol about repealing the death penalty, but he generally finds such assertions a lazy argument to make.
“It’s an argument that disengages from the merits based on a hypothetical situation,” Tate said. “A hypothetical can be anything.”
Denise Maes, ACLU Colorado’s public policy director, said the death penalty is a unique issue and should be viewed separately from other sentencing.
“The death penalty is archaic and barbaric. We are the only western-world country that relies on the death penalty. We’re completely out of sync with other western countries,” she said.
Brauchler added that the proposal would bedevil the state’s appellate courts and open the door for appeals from the convicted Aurora theater shooter and others sentenced to life in prison.
“Whether it’s this year or next near or in three years, they’re going to breathe life back into this case, by saying, ‘Oh, ineffective assistance of counsel,’” he said. “So we may have to relive that.”
In fact, nearly all people charged with first-degree murder will request a trial if the death penalty is repealed, according to Brauchler. He said plea deals stipulating a defendant will be sentenced to life in prison without parole, such as the agreement stuck in the case of convicted Frederick murderer Christopher Watts, would become rare legal specimens.
“(Weld County District Attorney) Michael Rourke was able to spare the community and the victims the trauma of having to relive that by getting a plea of guilty with life without parole,” Brauchler said. “You’ll never see something like that again.”
Brauchler, a Republican who is term-limited in 2020, has sought death twice in his eight years as the 18th Judicial District Attorney: Once in the theater shooting trial, and again in the case of convicted murder Brandon Johnson. The prospect of death was taken off the table after the defense team representing Johnson, who fatally stabbed his son moments after raping his ex-girlfriend in February 2016, eventually presented evidence questioning Johnson’s mental health. He was eventually sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in March 2018.
This year’s measure calling for an abolition of capital punishment in the state was formally introduced in the senate on Jan. 14. It will be heard in that chamber’s judiciary committee before likely being forwarded to the full senate for consideration.
If the bill passes the state Senate, Fields said she believes the measure has a clear path to Polis’ desk.
“If it goes to the House it’s going to pass,” she said.
But, Fields added, getting the proposed repeal to the lower chamber is anything but certain.
“You just never know,” she said. “ … I would like for everyone to listen to the arguments and make their own decision.”
If the proposal were to pass, and Polis were to commute the death sentence handed to her son’s murderer, Fields said it would likely feel like “a gut punch.
“I would be really upset,” she said.
Fields said she has spoken to Gov. Polis about the possible commutations, and has accepted the Governor’s stated plan to use his statutory authority.
“If he exercises his authority, there’s really nothing I can do,” she said. “We have to live with that decision — I have to live with that decision.”
Like Fields, Sharletta C. Evans knows what it’s like to have a murdered son. Her son Casson was killed in a drive-by shooting when he was 3 years old. Casson was asleep in Evans’ car when he was shot and killed.
Evans knows Fields well, and says the two have talked about their stances. Evans said she’s sometimes taken a backseat in her advocacy because of Fields.
“I didn’t want the media to put us in a competition type of thing, and so I would always take the back row,” she said. “Right now the way that I see it, I’ve gotten to the point that this conversation is going on too long and it’s time to really pull out all forces on it because we have to abolish it. It’s been lingering long enough. You’re messing with a deadly weapon when you’re talking about death row. I mean, it’s people’s lives here.”
Evans said she called Fields to tell her she’d be a vocal advocate of the repeal this year.
“I contacted Rhonda and I let her know that this is what I’m going to do, that I made a conscious decision that I’m going to pretty much stand on the front line with it. She gave me her blessing, and she told me that she appreciated me, she respected me for always being transparent with her,” Evans said. “She said, ‘you know where I’m at with it.’ She said, ‘I know where you are.’ She said, ‘we’re not enemies…. the fact that we, we’ve suffered the same. That was important for me to have her blessing.’”