Maisha Fields

Maisha Fields testifies in favor of keeping the death penalty on Feb. 18. Photo by Rep. Leslie Herod. 

House lawmakers took the next step to repeal Colorado's death penalty law, voting along party lines to send Senate Bill 100 to the full House for debate.

The House Judiciary Committee Tuesday spent six hours talking about the bill and listening to witnesses, much of it from many of the same people who testified for and against the bill when it went through the Senate Judiciary Committee on January 27.

The 2020 version may succeed where many efforts have failed in the past, after three Senate Republicans voted in favor of the bill on Jan. 31. The 19-13 vote included two "no" votes from Sens. Jessie Danielson, D-Wheat Ridge, and Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, who became a state lawmaker after her son and his fiancé were murdered. Two of Colorado's three death row inmates were convicted of those murders.

SB 100 bans the death penalty as a sentence for crimes committed on or after July 1, 2020, and would not apply to the three men on death row.

One of those three men, Nathan Dunlap, had his execution put on hold by Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2013, and that hold has remained in place since. 

Efforts to end the death penalty in Colorado have been tried 25 times over more than 100 years, according to bill sponsor Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, D-Denver. 

Those who testified Tuesday argued that the death penalty violates Christian tenets, is more expensive to state taxpayers through years of legal appeals, and disproportionately affects black and brown Americans. The three men on death row are all black.

Fields' daughter, Maisha, testified in favor of keeping the death penalty.

Lieutenant Hollis is the uncle of Faye Johnson, who was murdered in 1988 by a man believed to be Colorado's most prolific serial killer. Speaking in favor of repeal, he told the committee that "there's never any closure." Families who lose a loved one to murder must constantly relive the murder through years of appeals. And the state spends as much as $3 million on those appeals, money that could support his niece's children or help her brother deal with alcoholism, Hollis said.

"I'm against the death penalty" because of its finality, Benavidez said, pointing out that more than 165 people who have been put on death row have later been exonerated. 

In what's likely to be a preview for Thursday, Republican committee members offered amendments attempting to refer the matter to voters, either directly in the bill or through a petition clause. Those amendments failed. Co-sponsor Rep. Jeni Arndt, D-Fort Collins, said she believed a safety clause, which is for bills affecting public health and safety, is appropriate for SB 100. If someone wants to challenge the law, they can file a ballot initiative for it, she said. 

The most heated House debate over the death penalty repeal will be on Thursday, when the full House is expected to take up SB100. Republicans have already complained that House Democratic leadership scheduled debate for the same day that President Donald Trump is scheduled to hold an election rally in Colorado Springs. A lengthy debate would mean some lawmakers might not be able to make that event.

Gov. Jared Polis has said he will sign the bill. Twenty-one states plus Washington, D.C., have already abolished the death penalty. Four more states, including Colorado, have put a moratorium on executions. 

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