DENVER | Colorado is set to become the 22nd U.S. state to abolish the death penalty after lawmakers on Wednesday approved a repeal bill that Democratic Gov. Jared Polis has pledged to sign into law.
Passage had been virtually certain with Democrats holding a substantial majority in the House — even with several Democratic lawmakers casting “no” votes for the 36-27 repeal approval vote.
The measure moves toward finally becoming law after years of effort on both sides of the issues to pass or pause past bills. Much of the attention on opponents has focused on legislators whose family members were murdered in Aurora. In addition, the ACLU has for years taken up the cause, highlighting families of murder victims who oppose capital punishment.
The bill, passed by the Democrat-dominated state Senate in January, would apply to offenses charged starting July 1 and would not affect the fate of the three men on Colorado’s death row who face execution by lethal injection. But Polis has suggested he might consider clemency for them if asked.
“All clemency requests are weighty decisions that the governor will judge on their individual merits,” said Polis spokesman Conor Cahill.
Colorado’s last execution was carried out in 1997, when Gary Lee Davis was put to death by lethal injection for the 1986 kidnapping, rape and murder of a neighbor, Virginia May.
Wednesday’s vote came after lawmakers spent three days engaging in somber and often emotional death penalty discussions that touched on morality, personal faith, deterrence, discrimination against defendants of color and wrongful convictions.
Democratic Rep. Jovan Melton said all of Colorado’s condemned men are from his Aurora district, are African-American and that blacks account for just 4% of Colorado’s 5 million residents.
“They’re African-American, they’re males, my age. That’s not justice,” Melton said. “That is the last remnant of Jim Crow there is in Colorado.”
He added that he wasn’t absolving them of their crimes.
But Republican and some Democratic opponents insisted that the threat of facing the death penalty has compelled countless defendants to seek plea deals to solve or close cases. They also urged their colleagues to refer the issue to voters in a referendum.
“I want to apologize to you all,” GOP Rep. Shane Sandridge said, addressing crime victims’ surviving loved ones. “I want to apologize to the jurors that have suffered through these cases and then watch people try to override your will.”
Republican House Minority Leader Patrick Neville said Colorado “must have capital punishment in its arsenal of justice or justice will not be done, We’re saying the life of the killer means more than the life of the victim.”
Several Western states have moved to abolish capital punishment or put it on hold in recent years,and no inmates have been executed in any state west of Texas in the past five years, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.
Wyoming’s conservative Legislature came close last year, and another initiative there this year had 26 Republican sponsors out of the 78 Wyoming GOP state lawmakers serving in its 100-member Legislature.
And Washington state lawmakers are trying to remove the death penalty from state law with a measure that seeks to make permanent a 2018 state Supreme Court ruling that struck down capital punishment as arbitrary and racially biased.
In 2019, New Mexico’s Supreme Court set aside the death penalty for the final two inmates awaiting execution after the state’s 2009 repeal of capital punishment.
New Hampshire was the last state to repeal the death penalty, doing so last year.
Two prominent Colorado Democrats — Sen. Rhonda Fields of Aurora and Rep. Tom Sullivan of Centennial — used their own personal stories as crime victims in a bid to maintain capital punishment, or at least refer the issue to voters in a referendum.
Robert Ray and Sir Mario Owens were sentenced to die for the 2005 ambush slayings of Field’s son, Javad Marshall-Fields, and his fiancee, Vivian Wolfe.
Sullivan’s son, Alex, was killed in the 2012 Aurora movie theater shootings. Shooter James Holmes received multiple life sentences after a jury couldn’t agree unanimously on death.
Also on Colorado’s death row is Nathan Dunlap, who ambushed and murdered four people inside a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in 1993.
In 2013, then-Gov. John Hickenlooper, now a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, indefinitely delayed Dunlap’s execution. Hickenlooper has since come out saying he opposes the death penalty.