EDITORIAL: State legislators need to end Colorado death penalty, not voters

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The onerous capital punishment question for Colorado legislators isn’t whether to abolish the death penalty — it’s how. 

It’s more likely than ever that state lawmakers this term will end the barbaric, repugnant tradition of the death penalty for those convicted of murder themselves. A story in last week’s Sentinel quoted a wide array of bi-partisan lawmakers who cited the growing list of logical arguments against capital punishment.

The question is especially poignant for Aurora. The only convicts on death row in Colorado committed their atrocities in Aurora. Tragically, the city is no stranger to unspeakable slaughter.

For decades, Coloradans and the nation have been moving away from their support of the death penalty. In 2015, a sea change occurred when the jury hearing the case of the Aurora theater shooting refused to bring back a death sentence against James Holmes.

When the argument for the death penalty is that some murders warrant it, how can one of the most heinous slaughters in American history not pass that muster?

In the Sentinel story last week, a group of women whose families were murdered in Colorado spoke to that when they met at the Denver American Civil Liberties office. They met to explain why they want the death penalty in Colorado repealed.

It is impossible to quantify the atrocity of homicide, they said. We agree. How can the lives of Christopher Watts’ pregnant wife and young daughters, whom he gruesomely murdered in 2018 in Weld County, not be worth a death penalty when other Colorado murders have been?   

Last October, another milestone occurred nationally when, for the first time in decades, Americans polled about the death penalty reported a remarkable reversal. For the first time, more Americans now want life in prison without parole to supplant the death penalty for murder convictions. Gallup reported that a stunning 60% of Americans want life in prison imposed on murders, as opposed to 36% who prefer the death penalty.

The nation has finally moved away from a mentality shared by dubious nations such as China, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and others that continue to inflict revenge killings on criminals and call it justice.

The arguments against the death penalty have finally won over the nation, and Colorado, which experts say is often a mirror of the nation for issues like this.

  • The death penalty is not a deterrent to crime. This has been substantiated in numerous studies, numerous times. 
  • The death penalty is not equally nor fairly applied in Colorado, or anywhere in the country. In Colorado, every person on death row got there from an Arapahoe County court, despite numerous heinous murder convictions from across the state. 
  • The death penalty is obscenely expensive. A recent study of the death penalty  estimates it costs about $3.5 million to try a death penalty case. Other murder cases cost about $150,000 to try.
  • The death penalty doesn’t work. A full 25 percent of capital punishment cases still die of natural causes before they make it to the death chamber. Nathan Dunlap killed four employees of the Aurora Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant in 1993. It took 20 years to pull a date for his execution five years ago. It was set aside by Gov. John Hickenlooper.
  • Colorado can no longer even win capital convictions. Even a case as repulsive as the Aurora theater shootings was unable to persuade a jury to kill the convict for his horrific crime.

There is not a single compelling argument to continue permitting prosecutors to seek a death penalty conviction anywhere in Colorado.

There is, however, a plausible reason why the General Assembly should ask voters to abolish the death penalty rather than end it through legislation. If current state lawmakers were to repeal capital punishment in the state, future state lawmakers could just as easily reinstate it. The argument for a referendum is that a constitutional amendment, imposed by voters, would essentially cement the repeal for good.

Ten years ago, that would have been the right move. Not any more. A Colorado death penalty repeal enjoys bi-partisan support in the Legislature. Each year, more former death-penalty proponents cede its failures. Like so many social issues in the nation, there will be no going back.

It doesn’t mean that malevolent murders don’t deserve to die, it just recognizes the fact that no one, especially the government, deserves to end any person’s life. The list of shortcomings of the death penalty simply counters arguments posed by those who disagree with that crucial flaw in capital punishment.

Alice Randolph, whose son was murdered, made the argument against inflicting the death penalty clear.

“I listened to the district attorney out in Arapahoe County, and he kept saying how heinous the situation was,” she recalled to Sentinel reporter Kara Mason about an effort to push her into seeking the death penalty against her son’s killer. “So my thought was, well, how do you measure heinous? How do I say that?”

It can’t be done.

Members of the state House and Senate should approve Senate Bill 100, ending capital punishment in the state. Gov. Jared Polis should sign it. This is the time to carry out the wishes of Colorado residents and seek new ways to address seeking justice.