History of the Death Penalty
The first execution in Colorado was the hanging of John Stoefel in 1859. All executions were carried out by hanging until 1934, when the state adopted lethal gas as its new execution method. Colorado switched to lethal injection in 1988 before abolishing the death penalty in March 2020.
Perhaps the most famous death penalty cases in Colorado are two that did not result in death sentences.
On August 7, 2015, after a more than six-month trial that cost Colorado taxpayers more than $5 million, an Aurora, Colorado jury sentenced James Holmes to life in prison without the possibility of parole for a 2012 movie theater shooting that killed 12 people and injured dozens more. The jury said they could not reach a unanimous decision on Holmes’ sentence, an outcome that resulted in a sentence of life without parole. Holmes had offered to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of life without parole, but the prosecution rejected the plea. Holmes then pleaded not guity by reason of insanity. All of the mental health experts agreed that Holmes would not have committed the killing but for his mental illness, but disagreed on whether he could appreciate the criminality of his conduct. The jury rejected the insanity defense and convicted him of all charges, but spared him the death penalty. After the trial, jurors said that the prosecution had not persuaded three of the jurors to impose death.
Several months later, a Denver jury returned a life sentence in the capital trial of Dexter Lewis in the stabbing deaths of 5 people in a Denver bar in 2012. After less than 3 hours of deliberation, the jury determined that the aggravating factors relating to the killing did not outweigh Lewis’ mitigating evidence detailing the extensive history of abuse and neglect in his upbringing, including chronic alcohol abuse by his mother while she was pregnant and nearly daily beatings when he was a child. The defense also presented mental health evidence of the long-term effects of severe child abuse.
On January 7, 2011, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter granted a full and unconditional posthumous pardon to Joe Arridy, who had been convicted and executed as an accomplice to a murder that occurred in 1936. The pardon came 72 years after Arridy’s execution and is the first such pardon in Colorado history. A press release from the governor’s office stated, “[A]n overwhelming body of evidence indicates the 23-year-old Arridy was innocent, including false and coerced confessions, the likelihood that Arridy was not in Pueblo at the time of the killing, and an admission of guilt by someone else.” The governor also pointed to Arridy’s intellectual disabilities. He had an IQ of 46 and functioned like a toddler. The governor said, “Granting a posthumous pardon is an extraordinary remedy. But the tragic conviction of Mr. Arridy and his subsequent execution on Jan. 6, 1939, merit such relief based on the great likelihood that Mr. Arridy was, in fact, innocent of the crime for which he was executed, and his severe mental disability at the time of his trial and execution. Pardoning Mr. Arridy cannot undo this tragic event in Colorado history. It is in the interests of justice and simple decency, however, to restore his good name.”
On March 23, 2020 — the same day that he signed the death-penalty repeal bill into law — Governor Jared Polis commuted the sentences of the state’s three death-row prisoners to life without possibility of parole. Polis refused to identify the the prisoners by name in the clemency orders, referring to them only by their Colorado Department of Corrections offender numbers. He said his acts of clemency were not based on humanitarian concerns, but “to reflect what is now Colorado law.” The commutations, he said, “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.”
All three prisoners on Colorado’s death row were African Americans and all had attended Aurora High School:
1) Nathan Dunlap was condemned for shooting and killing four people at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant. On May 22, 2013, Governor John Hickenlooper issued an Executive Order granting an indefinite stay of execution to Dunlap, who was facing execution that August. The governor’s statement accompanying this reprieve said “If the State of Colorado is going to undertake the responsibility of executing a human being, the system must operate flawlessly. Colorado’s system for capital punishment is not flawless.” The governor underscored that his decision to grant a reprieve — which has been construed as a moratorium on executions in the state — was because of larger objections to the death penalty, and that he was not granting clemency to Dunlap.
2) Sir Mario Owens was convicted and received a jury’s death determination in 2008 for the murder of a young couple, Javad Marshall-Fields and his fiancee, Vivian Wolfe. The victims were prosecution witnesses in a murder trial involving Owens.
3) Robert Ray ordered the murders committed by Sir Mario Owens. The victims, Javad Marshall-Fields and Vivian Wolfe, were witnesses in his pending murder trial.
Milestones in Abolition and Reinstatement
Colorado abolished the death penalty in 1897 and reinstated it in 1901. After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down existing death penalty statutes in Furman v. Georgia in 1972, Colorado reintroduced capital punishment in the state effective January 1, 1975.
In 2009, the Colorado House of Representatives passed a death penalty abolition bill by a 33-32 vote. The bill failed in the state Senate by a 17-18 vote. The bill would have shifted death penalty prosecution funds to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation for the purpose of solving cold cases. Officials estimated that abolishing the death penalty would have saved the state approximately $1 million a year. There were about 1,400 unsolved murder cases in Colorado at the time, but the Colorado Bureau of Investigations cold case unit has only one staff member. Proponents claimed that the $1 million could have added eight people to that unit.
In 2020, Colorado abolished the death penalty. The bill passed the Senate by a 19-13 vote on January 30, and the House by a 38-27 vote on February 26. Governor Jared Polis signed the bill into law on March 23, 2020 and commuted the sentences of the three prisoners on the state’s death row.
Other Interesting Facts
The last person executed in the United States before the U.S. Supreme Court declared existing death-penalty laws unconstitutional in Furman v. Georgia in 1972 was Luis José Monge, who was put to death in the gas chamber on June 2, 1967. It took more than ten-and-a-half years before another execution was carried out in the U.S., when Utah executed Gary Gilmore by firing squad on January 17, 1977.
Between Colorado’s reinstatement of capital punishment in 1975 and its abolition of the death penalty in 2020, Colorado executed only one person, Gary Davis on October 22, 1997.
Until July 2011, the Colorado DOC had as a matter of policy automatically assigned death-sentenced prisoners to administrative segregation, the highest-security classification, which critics refer to as solitary confinement. The DOC also required that death-sentenced prisoners be assigned to the state’s dedicated “supermax” prison, Colorado State Penitentiary (CSP), in which all 734 prisoners were isolated, locked down 23 hours a day, and denied outdoor exercise. At CSP, prisoners’ only opportunity for out-of-cell recreation was one hour in a separate concrete-walled cell that contains a pull-up bar.
Prison officials usually maintain that with good behavior, “supermax” prisoners can earn their way to general population facilities, where prisoners can go outdoors and enjoy additional privileges. Death-row prisoner Nathan Dunlap, however, had not been confined to “supermax” because of any violent or disruptive conduct in prison and despite his good behavior in “supermax,” he was not eligible to “earn” his way out.
Mr. Dunlap filed a lawsuit and acted as his own attorney until ACLU took over the lawyering in 2010 and reached a settlement with the DOC.
Under the terms of the settlement, Mr. Dunlap was moved from CSP to the Sterling Correctional Facility, where he remained in solitary confinement but was afforded the opportunity to exercise five days a week in an area open to the sky and elements — an area twice as large as the exercise rooms he had used for 15 years at CSP. The DOC also chose to transfer the two other Colorado death row inmates to the Sterling Correctional Facility.
For additional information, see M. Radelet, The History of the Death Penalty in Colorado, University Press of Colorado, January 2017; J. Ingold, A history of the death penalty in Colorado, Denver Post blogs, The Rap Sheet (March 23, 2012).
Repeal The Death Penalty
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Governor Jared Polis has signed a bill to repeal the death penalty. The measure passed the Democratic legislature with limited bipartisan support earlier this spring and was sent to him shortly before lawmakers suspended their session.
This makes Colorado the 22nd state to abolish capital punishment, and it marks the conclusion of reform efforts that began at the Colorado State Capitol in 2007.
“It's important that we end that I think it has been a very discriminatory practice, not just towards people of color, but people within geographic areas within the state,” said Democratic Rep. Adrienne Benavidez of Adams County, one of the law's main sponsors. Prosecutors and juries in different parts of Colorado have shown different levels of comfort with the penalty.
In normal times, the signing of such a historic bill would likely be a news event, with the champions of abolition gathered around to celebrate. But Polis followed his own recommendations for social distancing, instead announcing the signing through a press release after the fact.
At the same time he announced the bill signing, the governor also commuted the sentences of three men on death row: Robert Ray, Sir Mario Owens and Nathan Dunlap. They will now serve life in prison without possibility of parole. Their cases were not directly affected by the repeal, leaving their fates up to Polis.
“Commutations are typically granted to reflect evidence of extraordinary change in the offender. That is not why I am commuting these sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole," Polis said in the press release announcing his decision. "Rather, 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."
However, Polis' decision to commute the three sentences was met with blistering criticism by District Attorney George Brauchler, whose predecessors prosecuted all three men. Brauchler said the governor had failed to confer with his office, as required by law. And he excoriated the underlying decision to end the death penalty.
"We will save no money. We are not safer. We are not a better people. And the only lives spared are those who commit the ultimate acts of evil against us," Brauchler said in a statement.
Long-fought victory for abolitionists
This is the sixth time that state lawmakers have tried to repeal the death penalty in recent years -- and the debate extends more than a century. Colorado lawmakers first abolished the death penalty in 1897, only to reinstate capital punishment a few years later -- an effort to discourage extrajudicial mobs from lynching prisoners.
This is the latest milestone in the United States’ dramatic shift on capital punishment. Nationwide, support for the death penalty reached a high of 80 percent in 1995, when Democrats and Republicans alike demanded a crackdown after years of climbing violent crime rates, according to Gallup polling.
Today, public opinion is split near evenly.
In some states, the death penalty was repealed only after dramatic scandals, especially the exoneration of men on death row. Colorado’s situation is the reverse; there’s no dispute that the three men on death row committed the crimes they were sentenced for.
Instead, the punishment all but eroded away here. It’s been a decade since a Colorado jury handed down a death sentence. No one has been executed in this state since 1997.
“Colorado is following the trend that we're seeing in the West, which is a steady movement away from the death penalty, first in practice, and then in abolition,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a national nonprofit that tracks the issue.
“So, we're seeing states moving away from it. We're seeing juries moving away from it. And we're seeing the executions, even though the death penalty is on the books, aren't happening.”
Colorado jurors have been reluctant to apply the death sentence even in high-profile cases like the Aurora theater shooting or the slayings of five bar patrons in Denver, and the volume of capital sentences nationwide has dropped by nearly 90% since its peak in the ‘90s.
But until now, the threat of death has loomed over criminal cases in Colorado. Conservative prosecutors say it has helped them win plea deals and avoid costly trials for the most horrific crimes. There’s also the idea that the death penalty discourages crime, which is hotly disputed by opponents and some researchers. A committee of the federally chartered National Research Council found that existing studies are too flawed to make any connection.
On the other side, reformers argue that the death penalty is cruel, that it puts innocent lives at risk, and that the endless debate has drawn attention away from other important questions.
Twenty-eight states still have death-penalty laws.
The road to repeal
Until the turn of the millenium, repealing the death penalty was practically a taboo subject, nationally and in the Colorado legislature. “It was difficult to ever vote on anything that made you look like you weren’t tough on crime,” said Paul Weissmann, a former state lawmaker and current treasurer for Boulder County.
In the state Senate, “there were maybe seven of us that consistently opposed the death penalty and fought hard then to repeal it,” he said. “Seven out of 35 (senators) isn’t a great number to get that done.”
But the politics of the issue started to shift. Colorado’s last execution -- of the murderer Gary Lee Davis -- was in 1997. And the state hadn’t executed anyone else for 30 years prior, while other states killed dozens or hundreds.
“It’s pretty much been a non-death penalty state for years, functionally” Weissmann said. He thinks that gave momentum to the abolition effort.
Repeal bills started making headway in the legislature by the 2000s. Weissmann’s 2009 effort passed the House and failed in the Senate by a single vote. In 2013, after Democrats regained control of the legislature, reformers tried again.
“I actually thought it would pass. I was very, very hopeful. We had spent a lot of time educating members about the issue,” said former representative Claire Levy. She blames its failure on then-governor John Hickenlooper, now a primary candidate for U.S. Senate.
Initially, Hickenloper expressed ambivalence, “but he was not closing the door to the possibility that he would sign (the bill),” Levy said. But she said support crumbled when Hickenlooper eventually signaled that he might instead veto.
“Because of that, some members of the House that were in swing districts felt that if the bill wasn’t going to pass, wasn’t going to be signed into law, they didn’t want to take a risky vote," Levy said.
Months later, Hickenlooper was credited with effectively putting a moratorium on capital punishment when he indefinitely delayed the execution of Nathan Dunlap, who murdered four people in a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in 1993.
In a written statement, Hickenlooper didn't directly address questions to his campaign about the earlier repeal effort. He said he was "glad that the state has taken this action," adding that he supported repeal because the death penalty "disproportionately and unjustly affects the poor and communities of color, costs millions of dollars, and by every measure it makes our community no safer."
In 2018, reformers thought their time had finally arrived when Democrats retook full control of state government with the “blue wave” midterm elections.
But their expected victory was delayed by emotional arguments within the Democratic Party, largely because of one lawmaker’s tragic experience: State Sen. Rhonda Fields’ son and his fiancee were murdered before he could testify in a murder trial. The perpetrators are two of the three men on death row in Colorado.
Fields has long maintained that repealing the death penalty would be a miscarriage of justice for her son and his fiancee. "We have kept people alive who are guilty of committing murder, mass murders," Fields said earlier. "We should maintain justice, and we should maintain the rights of victims and our ability to seek justice."
Fields accused repeal advocates of trying to rush the bill through without giving opponents a fair chance to organize. In the end, her objections over process undermined support for the bill in the Senate and sponsors ended up pulling the measure.
This year, the goal was the same, but Gonzales and the other sponsors said they were committed to a transparent process that would let the bill stand on its own merits. With new support from a few Republicans, they mounted a months-long effort that drew dozens of crime victims, lawyers, reformers and others to the Capitol’s chambers and committee for debates that stretched late into the night.
They came from every background and seemed to make every possible point. Some who wanted to keep the penalty said that repeal would end their chance at justice for a loved one. Numerous prosecutors testified the state would lose its ultimate tool, giving it litlte recourse for horrific crimes, especially those committed by life prisoners.
But lawmakers heard as well from numerous relatives of murder victims, who said that death would offer them no healing. Gail Rice, 72, is the sister of Bruce VanderJagt, a Denver police officer who was murdered in 1997. The killer died at the scene, but his death offered no closure, an experience that shaped her opposition to capital punishment
“Partly, I think (other survivors) have been led by prosecutors and politicians and sometimes family members too, to this hope that they're going to find peace. They're going to find closure. Everything is going to be fine,” she said in an interview. “And, and that's false.”
Death row to empty
The repeal bill left Gov. Jared Polis with a big question: What should he do with the three men still on death row? The law does not apply retroactively, so without the governor exercising his power of clemency, they would still potentially be on a path to execution. Polis chose to settle the question at the same time he signed the new law, reducing the sentences of all three to life without parole.
“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,” the Governor said in his statement.
Other governors have taken different approaches.
Martin O’Malley didn’t make a final decision about the prisoners on his state's death row until two years after he signed Maryland’s repeal law, despite his leading role in abolition. With just a few weeks left in his term, he commuted four men’s sentences to life-in-prison.
In New Mexico, governors left two men on death row for a decade after abolition, until the state’s supreme court spared them. Ultimately, most death-row inmates end up with a life sentence after their states pass repeal.
There’s another wrinkle in Colorado, too. Adams County District Attorney Dave Young is currently pursuing a capital case in the killing of sheriff’s deputy Heath Gumm. The Colorado law also won’t apply retroactively to that case. So if the jury chooses death, it will leave Polis with one more decision to make.
In a world without the death penalty, prosecutors like Young worry that they won’t have leverage to encourage guilty pleas in the most serious trials.
“Without the leverage, the entire judicial system would be bogged down,” Young said at a January meeting.
Denver District Attorney Beth McCann countered that idea, saying that the threat of death can unbalance the entire system -- leading defendants to give up their rights. “It’s a sledgehammer,” she said at the meeting.
Now, as that “sledgehammer” disappears into Colorado’s past, other criminal justice reform questions may take center stage.
“People are able to take a look at other problems, that are less magnified, and get down to the small details,” Dunham said of what happens in states after abolition.
“And we also see that there is a lot less emotional turmoil. When people are dealing with the other issues, they can look at it much more rationally. The death penalty debate soaks up a lot of emotions and, and reasonably so.”
CPR's Bente Birkeland contributed to this article. This article was updated with comment from Hickenlooper's campaign.
Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill Monday making Colorado the 22nd state to abolish the death penalty, and he also commuted the sentences of the three killers on death row.
They will instead serve life prison sentences without the possibility of parole, Polis said.
“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,” he said.
Support for the death penalty has gone down nationally amid concerns over cases in which death row inmates have been exonerated and minorities disproportionately received death sentences. More than a third of the states that still have capital punishment haven’t executed anyone in at least the last decade, according to 2019 Pew Research Center data, nor have the federal government or the U.S. military.
The historic end of executions in Colorado comes after about 36 hours of debate at the legislature this year despite a push by Republicans to instead put the issue on the 2020 ballot.
Proponents called the death penalty “cruel and unusual punishment.” They said its use in cases is uneven, and the litigation surrounding it is not only costly to taxpayers but forces families to relive their loved ones’ killings. Only one person has been executed in the state since a federal moratorium was lifted in 1976.
Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat and bill sponsor, called the moment “solemn,” and while she applauded Colorado’s work, she said there’s more work to be done across the country.
“It is an important acknowledgement that every life has dignity no matter how heinous their actions, the crimes, they may have committed,” Gonzales said.
Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler, however, called the signing a win for criminals.
“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 in a statement. “We have also reduced the protections for witnesses to crime by lowering the bar for their murders. Colorado’s pro-offender legislature and its current governor have signaled that those lives are worth more protection than those of their victims.”
The newly signed bill specifies that the death penalty can’t be given for crimes committed on or after July 1, and currently, at least one defendant in Adams County is facing trial in a case that could result in the death penalty. Dreion Dearing is accused of killing Adams County Deputy Heath Gumm.
“For all intents and purposes, the death penalty in Colorado is now a thing of the past,” said Jim Castle, the attorney for Sir Mario Owens, one of three men on death row.
Robert Ray and Owens were convicted of fatally shooting Gregory Vann, 20, at a 2004 party in Lowry Park. Javad Marshall-Fields was wounded in the shooting, and he and his fiancee, Vivian Wolfe, were planning to testify about the shooting before Ray ordered that they be killed. Owens was convicted for their 2005 murders.
The other man on death row was Nathan Dunlap, who was convicted in 1993 of fatally shooting employees who were closing for the night at Chuck E. Cheese in Aurora. He killed Ben Grant, 17; Sylvia Crowell, 19; Colleen O’Connor, 17; and Margaret Kohlberg, 50. Bobby Stephens survived. Dunlap received a temporary reprieve from former Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2013.
The three black men went to the same high school at different times.
“There are no winners in these things,” Castle said. “It’s a tough day for victims of crime in these cases, and our hearts go out to them. It’s a good day in the sense that in Colorado, life is a little more precious now.”
Attorneys for Ray and Dunlap, Mary Claire Mulligan and Madeline Cohen, said the commutations recognize that their clients’ cases demonstrate many of the reasons for the repeal, including their clients’ ages at the time of the murders, their race, their backgrounds and issues with the prosecution.
But Brauchler called the commutations “offensive,” particularly because Polis didn’t submit any applications for commutations to the 18th Judicial District, where all three death row cases took place.
“Unlike the signing of the death penalty repeal bill, there was no urgency to commuting the sentences of these murderers of multiple Coloradans; combined, they have murdered seven innocent people,” Brauchler said. “The decision to do it during a global pandemic is disrespectful to the victims, the jurors and the public. It is not leadership, but weakness and political opportunism.”
The issue of the repeal doesn’t follow strict party lines. A handful of Democrats opposed the measure while a few Republicans backed it.
“I just came to the conclusion I didn’t think the state of Colorado should have the power over life and death in any circumstance,” said Colorado Sen. Jack Tate, a Centennial Republican and bill sponsor.
Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat, the mother of murder victim Marshall-Fields, opposed the repeal, as did Democratic Rep. Tom Sullivan, of Centennial, whose son, Alex, was killed in the Aurora theater shooting.
Update March 24: Due to an error, the name of one of the victims from the 1993 shooting was misspelled. Margaret Kohlberg was killed in the Chuck E. Cheese shooting in Aurora.
Death penalty colorado
Capital punishment in Colorado
Overview of the use of capital punishment in the U.S. state of Colorado
Capital punishment was abolished in Colorado in 2020. It was legal from 1974 until 2020 prior to it being abolished. All valid death sentences as of 2020 have since been commuted to life sentences by governor Jared Polis.
It was reinstated in 1974 by popular vote, with 61% in favor of the measure that was referred to the voters by the state legislature.
In March 2020, the Colorado Legislature passed a bill to repeal the death penalty for individuals – only for crimes committed after July 1, 2020. The bill was signed by the Governor of Colorado on March 23, 2020. The law is not retroactive, including to the three inmates who were then housed on death row. Nonetheless, the three men who were awaiting execution had their death sentences commuted to life in prison by Governor Jared Polis on March 23, 2020.
It is still possible for someone to be sentenced to death for a capital crime committed before July 1, 2020.
Colorado was one of the first states to repudiate the death penalty by abolishing it in 1897 only to restore it once more in 1901 due to a number of lynchings that had occurred. In total, 101 people were executed in Colorado in the period before Furman v. Georgia[note 1] (1859–1972). Eleven of these executions were prior to statehood; 90 since. All were executed as punishment for murder and all were male.
Hanging was the sole method of execution until it was replaced by gas inhalation in 1934. There were 69 hangings and 32 gassings.
Colorado is notable for being the last state to make use of lethal gas prior to the 1972 Supreme Court decision that effectively abolished capital punishment in the United States. Colorado performed the last pre-Furman gassing in 1967. Oklahoma performed the last pre-Furman electrocution in 1966.
Kansas performed the last pre-Furman hanging in 1965. Utah performed the last pre-Furman execution of a death sentence by firing squad in 1960 (and coincidentally, the first post-Furman execution by firing squad in 1977).
On January 14, 2020, Senate Bill 20-100 was introduced in the Colorado Senate with prime sponsors being Senators Julie Gonzales and Jack Tate as well as Representatives Jeni James Arndt and Adrienne Benavidez. The bill would repeal death penalty for individuals - only after July 1, 2020, and it is not retrospective to the current three inmates on death row, however, the GovernorJared Polis said "If the state, Republicans and Democrats, were to say, and I were to sign, a bill that said we no longer have the death penalty in Colorado … I would certainly take that as a strong indication that those who are currently on death row should have their sentences commuted to life in prison," On January 31, 2020, the Colorado Senate voted 19-13 on the bill's final reading to pass it and advance it to the Colorado House of Representatives.
On February 26, 2020, the Colorado House of Representatives voted 38-27 on final reading to pass it and send it to the Governor's desk. The bill was signed on March 23, 2020.
When the prosecution sought the death penalty, the sentence was decided by the jury and required unaninimity. In case of a hung jury during the penalty phase of the trial, a life sentence was issued, even if a single juror opposed death (there was no retrial).
From 1995 to 2003, death sentences in Colorado were decided on by a three-judge panel. Three people (George Woldt; Francisco Martinez, Jr.; and William Neal) were sentenced to death under this system until it was overturned following Ring v. Arizona, retroactively commuting the death sentences to life without parole.
Before July 1, 2020, first-degree murder was punishable by death in Colorado if:
- it was committed by a person under sentence of imprisonment for a class 1, 2, or 3 felony;
- the defendant was previously convicted of a class 1 or 2 felony involving violence;
- the defendant knowingly killed a law officer, elected officer, judicial officer or firefighter, while the person was engaged in the course of the performance of the person's duties or because of them;
- the defendant killed a person kidnapped or held as a hostage by him or by anyone associated with him;
- the defendant had been a party to an agreement to kill another person in furtherance of which a person was intentionally killed;
- it was committed while lying in wait, from ambush, or by use of an explosive or incendiary device or a chemical, biological, or radiological weapon;
- the defendant committed a class 1, 2, or 3 felony and, in the course of or in furtherance of such or immediate flight therefrom, the defendant intentionally caused the death of a person other than one of the participants;
- it was committed for pecuniary gain;
- the defendant knowingly created a grave risk of death to another person in addition to the victim of the offense;
- it was committed in an especially heinous, cruel, or depraved manner;
- the murder was committed for the purpose of avoiding or preventing a lawful arrest or prosecution or effecting an escape from custody, including killing of a witness to a criminal offense;
- the defendant unlawfully and intentionally, knowingly, or with universal malice manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life generally, killed two or more persons during the commission of the same criminal episode;
- the victim was a child under 12 years of age;
- the murder was committed because of the victim's race, color, ancestry, religion, or national origin;
- the defendant's possession of the weapon used to commit the class 1 felony constituted a felony offense under Colorado or federal law;
- the defendant intentionally killed more than one person in more than one criminal episode;
- the defendant knowingly killed a pregnant woman.
Colorado statute books had still provided the death penalty for first-degree kidnapping and aggravated assault by an escaping capital felon, but the death penalty for these crimes had been ruled unconstitutional in the 2008 U.S. Supreme Court case Kennedy v. Louisiana.
The Governor of Colorado has the sole right to pardon or commute the death sentence. As of 2011[update], no gubernatorial commutation of a living prisoner had been granted in Colorado. However, on March 23, 2020, the three men who were awaiting execution had their death sentences commuted to life in prison by Governor Jared Polis on the same day that Polis had signed into law a bill repealing the state's death penalty.
On January 7, 2011, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter granted a full and unconditional posthumous pardon to Joe Arridy, who had been convicted and executed as an accomplice to a murder that occurred in 1936. The pardon came 72 years after Arridy's execution and was the first such pardon in Colorado history. A press release from the governor's office stated, "[A]n overwhelming body of evidence indicates the 23-year-old Arridy was innocent, including false and coerced confessions, the likelihood that Arridy was not in Pueblo at the time of the killing, and an admission of guilt by someone else."
The governor pointed to Arridy's IQ of 46. The governor said, "Granting a posthumous pardon is an extraordinary remedy. But the tragic conviction of Mr. Arridy and his subsequent execution on Jan. 6, 1939, merit such relief based on the great likelihood that Mr. Arridy was, in fact, innocent of the crime for which he was executed, and his severe mental disability at the time of his trial and execution. Pardoning Mr. Arridy cannot undo this tragic event in Colorado history. It is in the interests of justice and simple decency, however, to restore his good name."
On May 22, 2013, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said it was unlikely he would ever allow the execution of convicted killer Nathan Dunlap. Hickenlooper granted Dunlap an indefinite reprieve, citing doubts about the fairness of Colorado's death penalty.
Method of executions
Lethal injection was the only permitted method of execution in Colorado, although the state previously used hanging and the gas chamber.
Former death row
Colorado's death row had been located in Colorado State Penitentiary.
As of March 23, 2020, three people had been awaiting execution:
- Nathan Dunlap, convicted and sentenced to death for murdering four people at a Chuck E. Cheese's restaurant in 1993;
- Mario Owens, who was convicted and received a jury's death determination in 2008 for the murder of a young couple, Javad Marshall-Fields and his fiancée, Vivian Wolfe, both prosecution witnesses in a murder trial involving Owens; and
- Robert Ray, who ordered the murders of Marshall-Fields and Wolfe while awaiting his own trial for murder.
However, on March 23, 2020, Governor Jared Polis commuted the sentences of these three men to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
- Michael L. Radelet. 2017. The History of the Death Penalty in Colorado. (Boulder: University Press of Colorado)
- ^Arridy did not commit any crime. The person that he was avenged for was 15-year-old Dorothy Drain, who was raped and murdered in Pueblo, Colorado.
- ^"Colorado Death Penalty for Class 1 Felonies, Measure 2 (1974)". ballotpedia.org. Retrieved June 17, 2017.
- ^ abHow the death penalty works in Colorado
- ^ abGovernor signs bill abolishing Colorado’s death penalty, commutes sentences of state’s 3 death row inmates – The Colorado Sun
- ^ abRegional Studies CentralArchived 2008-10-17 at the Wayback Machine; accessed November 14, 2016.
- ^ abArchived May 5, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
- ^ abRepeal The Death Penalty | Colorado General Assembly
- ^Polis Would Commute Sentences If State Lawmakers Pass Death Penalty Ban
- ^ abColorado Revised Statutes § 18-1.3-1201
- ^https://www.thedenverchannel.com/news/three-judge-panel-death-sentences-overturned[permanent dead link]
- ^"COCODE". lpdirect.net. Retrieved June 15, 2015.
- ^"COCODE". lpdirect.net. Retrieved June 15, 2015.
- ^"Clemency". deathpenaltyinfo.org. Archived from the original on August 14, 2019. Retrieved June 15, 2015.
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- ^Three men still on Colorado's death row after judge denies capital appeal - The Colorado Independent
- ^Death penalty abolished in Colorado
- ^Gov. Polis Signs Death Penalty Repeal Bill, Commutes Death Row Sentences to Life in Prison Without Parole
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How social science helped end the death penalty in Colorado
Last month, Colorado became the latest US state to abolish the death penalty. Hollis A. Whitson writes on how the move has been the culmination of years of work from abolitionists and social scientists who built a convincing base of evidence on the racial and geographic disparities of the death penalty in Colorado.
On March 23, 2020, Colorado became the 22nd state to abolish the death penalty. At the same time that Democratic Governor Jared Polis signed the repeal bill into law, he commuted the sentences of all three men on Colorado’s death row to life imprisonment. Within weeks, prosecutors in the last two pending death penalty cases withdrew their requests for the death penalty. In the space of a month, the death penalty simply disappeared from the state.
But the events of 2020 were the culmination of years of work. Since at least 2007, abolitionists had introduced a series of repeal bills and worked to convince courts to rule the penalty unconstitutional, all to no avail. This time, however, conditions were ripe. The death penalty is in a steep decline throughout the United States and the around the world:
- Fewer than 30 people were executed and fewer than 50 sentenced to death in the US in each of the previous five years.
- 60 percent of 2019 Gallup poll respondents preferred a sentence of life without parole over the death penalty, while only 36 percent favored the death penalty.
- In 2018, the Vatican formally changed the Catechism of the Catholic Church, calling capital punishment “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” and deeming it “inadmissible” in all cases.
- By 2016, 102 countries around the globe had abolished the penalty for all crimes while eight had abolished it for ordinary crimes. Six times in recent memory, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty.
- 2019 saw the 167th US death row prisoner exonerated, proving that conviction of the innocent was possible.
Colorado’s practice reflected this national and international move away from capital punishment. Prior to repeal, Colorado’s death row housed only three men: all African-American, all from the same jurisdiction, all of whom had even attended the same high school. Colorado had executed only one person in more than fifty years.
To be sure, all of these facts made Colorado ripe for repeal. But what pushed the state over the line this time? Perhaps it was the quiet, persistent work of social scientists, who for two decades had been investigating the facts in hundreds of actual Colorado murder cases, conducting empirical research, and bringing into the public discourse the hard truths that Colorado’s death penalty was being administered in an arbitrary, racially disparate manner.
“Execution Bed” by Josh Rushing is licensed under CC BY NC SA 2.0.
Although in 1984 the United States Supreme Court rejected an empirical study into the racially disparate impact on the death penalty, social scientists in Colorado and elsewhere continued to document the death penalty’s flawed operation. The first such study, conducted by Michael Radelet, Stephanie Hindson, and Hillary Potter at the University of Colorado, examined Colorado homicides and death penalty cases from 1980 to 1999 and identified the race of defendants and victims. While non-Hispanic white victims accounted for 54 percent of all homicide victims, they were almost 82 percent of the victims in cases where the death penalty was sought.
Building on this work, professors at the Sturm College of Law at the University of Denver spearheaded the next generation of empirical research. Sam Kamin, Justin Marceau, Scott Phillips, Wanda Foglia and Meg Beardsley reviewed the circumstances in hundreds of actual Colorado murder cases. They discovered, while the death penalty was an option in over 90 percent of all first-degree murders, it was sought by the prosecution initially in only 3 percent of those killings, pursued all the way through sentencing in only 1 percent of those killings, and obtained in only 0.6 percent of all cases. In other words, almost every murder case could have been prosecuted as a death penalty case, but almost none were. Disturbing racial and geographic disparities were revealed: prosecutors were about five times more likely to seek death against minority defendants than against white defendants. These empirical studies were introduced in various trial courts around the state, raising constitutional challenges to Colorado’s capital statute. Although these challenges were not successful in court, they eventually made their way into the public consciousness.
On May 22, 2013, then-Governor John Hickenlooper issued an order indefinitely putting on hold an execution for one of the three men on Colorado’s death row. In that order, he cited the empirical research as support for his moratorium, saying, “under Colorado’s capital sentencing system, death is not handed down fairly.” In 2015, Colorado jurors rejected the death penalty for a white man who had walked into a packed movie theater with an assault rifle, killed 12 people, and injured 70 more. A different Colorado jury chose the penalty of life imprisonment without parole for a black man who was convicted of stabbing five people to death during a bar robbery. It was becoming harder and harder for death penalty retentionists to argue that in Colorado, only the worst of the worst were receiving the death penalty.
In the 2020 legislative battle, social science arguments were front-and-center. Democratic Rep. Adrienne Benavidez of Adams County, one of the law’s main sponsors, stated, “It’s important that we end that I think it has been a very discriminatory practice, not just towards people of color, but people within geographic areas within the state.” The chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee quoted passages from Professor Radelet’s 2017 Book, The History of the Death Penalty in Colorado. Professors Kamin and Phillips reported their most recent findings of the University of Denver study, which by this point included over 15 years of data from actual Colorado murder cases.
In his statement on March 23, abolishing the death penalty and emptying the state’s death row, Governor Polis recognized “that the death penalty cannot be, and never has been, administered equitably in the State of Colorado.” Social science had won the day.
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Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor the London School of Economics.
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About the author
Hollis A. Whitson
Hollis A. Whitson is a founding partner of the Denver law firm of Samler & Whitson, P.C., where her practice is limited to federal and state appeals and the defense in death penalty prosecutions.
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Colorado Abolishes Death Penalty and Commutes Sentences of Death Row Inmates
The state had executed just one person since reinstating the death penalty in the 1970s.
Colorado abolished its seldom-used death penalty on Monday, joining a growing number of states that have eschewed capital punishment as a deterrent to the most serious crimes.
Gov. Jared S. Polis, a Democrat, signed the repeal into law after it had reached his desk from the state legislature. It had passed the Senate in January and the House in February after several failed attempts to end capital punishment in the state.
Colorado had executed just one person since reinstating the death penalty in the mid-1970s: Gary Davis, who had been convicted of the rape and murder of Virginia May, was given a lethal injection in 1997.
On Monday, Mr. Polis also commuted the sentences of three men on death row — Robert Ray, Sir Mario Owens and Nathan Dunlap — to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He said in a statement that he wanted the law to be applied consistently.
“Commutations are typically granted to reflect evidence of extraordinary change in the offender,” Mr. Polis said, noting that this was not the reason he was commuting the three sentences.
“Rather, the commutations of these despicable and guilty individuals are consistent with the abolition of the death penalty in the state of Colorado,” he said, “and consistent with the recognition that the death penalty cannot be, and never has been, administered equitably in the state of Colorado.”
Colorado joined 21 other states that have repealed the death penalty, according to the advocacy group Equal Justice USA, which had campaigned for the end of capital punishment in the state. The organization mounted similar efforts in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland and Illinois, which have all abolished the death penalty.
Shari Silberstein, the group’s executive director, said in a statement that it was a proud moment for Colorado.
“With Gov. Polis’s signature, the state liberated itself from one of the most glaring failures of the legal system and is charting a new path toward justice,” she said. “Instead of wasting millions of dollars every year, the state can focus on the healing that survivors of violence need while also working toward making families and communities safe by preventing future violence.”
George Brauchler, a Republican district attorney in Colorado, criticized the repeal in a statement on Monday.
“There are a few in Colorado today who will cheer the sparing of the lives of these coldblooded murderers,” he said. “For the rest of Colorado, make no mistake: We will save no money. We are not safer. We are not a better people. And the only lives spared are those who commit the ultimate acts of evil against us.”