‘Til death penalty do us part? — Colorado reconsiders capital punishment again

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AURORA | Colorado lawmakers are again considering scrapping the state’s hardly-used death penalty — a sentence rarely handed down outside of Aurora.

State Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, introduced a bill last week that would scrap capital punishment as a potential sentence for crimes committed after July 1. Rep. Alec Garnett, D-Denver, is co-sponsoring the legislation, Senate Bill 95.

David Pourshoushtari, spokesman for the Democratic leadership in the Senate, said the bill is set to go before a committee Feb. 15. He said Guzman, the Senate Minority Leader, declined to comment on the measure until closer to that committee hearing.

A spokesman for the Senate GOP did not respond to a request for comment.

Colorado’s death penalty has been rarely used since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment about four decades ago. Just one person, Gary Lee Davis in 1997, has been executed in the state. Just three men remain on death row, all of whom are from Aurora.

In 2015, Colorado juries balked at handing down a death sentence in both the Aurora theater shooting case, where 12 people were killed, and the Fero’s bar case, where five were killed.

Opponents of capital punishment say because Colorado uses capital punishment so infrequently already, they are hoping now is the time to repeal it altogether.

“We believe that there are better things we could be spending limited money on than an ineffective death penalty,” said Stacy Anderson of Better Priorities Initiative, which is backing repeal.

Anderson said opponents of the death penalty see it as less of a partisan issue than it once was and are hoping to get backing from fiscal conservatives worried about the costs associated with a death sentence.

Those same conservatives are generally leery of trusting the government on issues like health care or to fix potholes, Anderson said, and backers of repeal hope that distrust of government carries over to the death penalty.

State law calls for executions to be carried out via lethal injection using sodium thiopental, but the state doesn’t have any of the drug on hand and other states have struggled to procure it in recent years.

Anderson said that fact could sway death penalty supporters worried about how the state could even carry out an execution.

“It would be nearly impossible to get a hold of the drugs needed,” she said.

Still, the prospects for repeal could be grim. The measure first has to clear the Republican-lead judiciary committee, then pass the full Senate where Republicans hold a slim majority.

Similar measures have previously failed to win even a Democratic majority.

Even if backers are able to convince a few from the generally pro-capital punishment GOP to their side, they could struggle to get all the Democratic votes they would need this time.

Sen. Rhonda Fields, a Democrat from Aurora, is on record backing the death penalty in Colorado. Her son, Javad Marshall-Fields, and his fiancee, Vivian Wolfe, were gunned down in 2005 before Marshall-Fields could testify in a separate shooting trial. Two of the men responsible for the slayings — Robert Ray and Sir Mario Owens — are the only two men left on Colorado’s death row with executions pending.

The other person on death row is Nathan Dunlap, convicted of killing four during a 1993 shooting rampage at an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant.

Dunlap was set for execution in 2013 but Gov. John Hickenlooper granted him an indefinite reprieve. The move stopped short of a full pardon and a future governor could step in and lift the reprieve.

Colorado prosecutors are seeking the death penalty in just one case right now, and that one too is in the 18th Judicial District, which includes Arapahoe County and Aurora. Prosecutors there plan to ask a jury to sentence Brandon Johnson to death for killing his 6-year-old son last year.

District Attorney George Brauchler — who also sought the death penalty in the theater shooting trial — announced plans to seek the death penalty against Johnson late last year.

Johnson, who is also accused of raping his ex-girlfriend shortly before killing his son, is being held without bond in the Arapahoe County Jail.