AURORA | Gov. Jared Polis on Monday simultaneously abolished the death penalty in Colorado and commuted a trio of death sentences previously handed to convicted Aurora murderers.
Following years of debate among state lawmakers, policy advocates and family members of the slain, Polis signed a contested state bill that outlaws sentencing Colorado convicts to death for offenses charged after July 1.
At the same time, Polis commuted the sentences of three former Overland High School students convicted of murdering several people in Aurora in the 1990s and early 2000s.
All three men, 45-year-old Nathan Dunlap, 35-year-old Sir Mario Owens and 34-year-old Robert Ray had their sentences commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“The commutations of these despicable and guilty individuals are consistent with the abolition of the death penalty in the State of Colorado, and consistent with the recognition that the death penalty cannot be, and never has been, administered equitably in the state of Colorado,” Polis said in a statement. “While I understand that some victims agree with my decision and others disagree, I hope this decision provides clarity and certainty for them moving forward. The decision to commute these sentences was made to reflect what is now Colorado law, and done after a thorough outreach process to the victims and their families.”
Dunlap was sentenced to death for shooting and killing four people, and seriously injuring a fifth, when he was 19 years old at an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese on East Iliff Avenue in 1993.
Owens and Ray faced death sentences for shooting and killing several people, including Javad Marshall-Fields and his fiancé, Vivian Wolfe.
Marshall-Fields was the son of Democratic state senator Rhonda Fields, who for years has railed against attempts to nix the state’s death penalty. She provided ample emotional comment when the bill was heard before the state legislature earlier this year.
She condemned Polis’ commutations Monday.
“In a stroke of a pen, Gov. Polis hijacks justice and undermines our criminal justice system,” Fields wrote in a tweet.
The local branch of the ACLU, which has called for an end to the state’s capital punishment law for years, lauded Polis’ decision.
“This long-overdue achievement makes Colorado the 22nd state to repeal the death penalty, finally ending this broken, costly, and unjust system in our state,” Executive Director Nathan Woodliff-Stanley said in a statement.
George Brauchler, district attorney in the Arapahoe County jurisdiction where all three men were tried, excoriated Polis’ decision, calling it “political opportunism.”
“Buried under the coverage of an urgent, global pandemic, Gov. Polis wiped away three separate unanimous jury verdicts for some of the worst murderers in our state’s history,” Brauchler said in a statement. ” … Combined they have murdered seven innocent people. The decision to do it during a global pandemic is disrespectful to the victims, the jurors and the public.”
Brauchler said Polis skirted state law by failing to consult with his office prior to granting the commutations.
“This governor has never reached out to me or any member of the prosecution team, all of whom are still in the area, for any comments, consultation, or input of any kind before rescuing these heinous, cold-blooded murderers from their earned sentences,” he said.
Brauchler, who briefly ran for governor himself in 2017, further lambasted Polis’ decision, which came after several dozen hours of debate at the state Capitol earlier this winter.
“The decision to pass and sign the death penalty repeal bill should bring a smile to the faces of future serial killers, terrorists, cop killers, mass murderers, child killers, and those in prison who decide to kill again,” he said.
The state hadn’t executed a convict since 1997.