LYTLE: Coloradans – and victims’ families, in particular – are better served without the death penalty

752

When I was growing up in Gary, Indiana, every home in my neighborhood was a Midwestern style rancher. Every one of them had a huge four-door sedan parked in the driveway (made in the USA, of course) — and just about every home had a Dad who worked in the steel industry.

My Dad operated a crane at U.S. Steel, he was a union activist, and he was a bodybuilder before such a thing was vogue. He was the strictest father I knew and my greatest protector.

One night changed all that. My Dad was shot in a failed robbery attempt. I flew to be by his side, praying that it would be OK. But four days later, he was gone.

My father’s murder has never been solved. Like the vast majority of people whose loved ones were taken in this way, the person responsible for my Dad’s death didn’t get a death sentence. For most of us, the death penalty isn’t a part of our experience. For that, I am thankful.

Here in Colorado, over 7,000 people have been murdered in the last 40 years. There has been one execution, and there are currently three men on death row. Even though it’s rarely used, the death penalty sucks up a huge amount of time and resources. According to estimates, a death penalty trial costs us almost $3.4 million more than a non-capital murder trial. The legislature spends hours debating the merits of the punishment, and capital cases become sensationalized headlines.

All that money, time, and attention could be better used to make a difference in the lives of Coloradans – preventing gun violence, funding youth programs, improving schools, and supporting families like mine.

Unexpected expenses can burden families just when they should be focused on their healing. Using some of the millions spent on the death penalty for funeral assistance or grief counseling would be a valuable service for all victims’ families.

Colorado has a backlog of 1,300 unsolved murders dating back to 1970. This is a public safety nightmare, and the state sends a terrible message to victims’ families when it burns millions of dollars on just a few death penalty cases.

Politicians and prosecutors claim we need to keep the death penalty for the “worst of the worst.” The implication is that my loss, my pain, is somehow ordinary. This is a cruel by-product of the death penalty. It’s also empirically false. We know that race and geography are actually what determines who receives a death sentence, not how heinous the crime was. (All three men on Colorado’s death row are African Americans who lived in the same county and even attended the same high school.)

It’s hard to consider myself fortunate, but I’m glad to have avoided a capital trial in my father’s case. The Supreme Court – to reduce the risk of executing an innocent person – demands at least two trials, plus an exhaustive appeals process, for capital cases. Having been told that justice is an execution, families in those cases wait decades for its fulfillment. They are trapped by the proceedings. Every step in the appeal process rips open their wounds. Family members endure the media making a pseudo-celebrity of the person who killed their loved one. They put their healing on hold waiting for a conclusion that might never come.

We can do better for all victims in Colorado by ending the death penalty. We can say enough is enough to the violence. We can focus our energy and resources on programs to prevent violence from occurring in the first place. We can ensure all cases are exhaustively investigated, give all victims equal respect, and provide access to the resources all victims’ families need to rebuild their lives. It’s time for Colorado to move forward å and leave our broken death penalty system behind.

Rosemary Lytle lives in Colorado Springs. She is president of the NAACP State Conference and has dedicated her life to criminal justice reform, including seeking legislative repeal of the Colorado death penalty.