The state Senate debated a repeal of Colorado's death penalty Thursday, in the proposal's strongest chances of becoming law after a dozen years of attempts at the General Assembly.
Senators gave initial approval Thursday, but the measure still must pass a roll-call vote before it can advance to the House. Democrats, most of whom support the measure, control both chambers of the General Assembly, and Gov. Jared Polis has said he stands ready to sign an end to capital punishment in the state.
Twenty states and the District of Columbia have banned the death penalty.
Senate Bill 100 would apply to those sentenced after Jan. 1. Currently there are three men on Colorado's death row, but the state has executed only prisoner since capital punishment resumed in the U.S. in 1976 — Gary Lee Davis in 1997 for the 1986 kidnapping, rape and murder of a neighbor.
"I don't think this bill will save lives," said Senate Republican leader Chris Holbert of Parker said. "We don't execute people in Colorado."
As it is every year, the legislation is opposed by state Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, whose son, Javad Marshall Fields, and his fiancee, Vivian Wolfe, were murdered by gang members in Aurora in 2005. Two of the men on death row, Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray, were convicted of the scheme to prevent the senator's son from testifying against Owens as a witness to another murder.
"I stand with victims, because I am one," Fields said on the Senate floor Thursday.
Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, one of the sponsors of the bill, said she understood Fields' frustration. She pointed out the 2020 version excludes the three men now sitting on death row.
Fields told Colorado Politics on Tuesday that she expects the bill to have the votes to advance from the Senate to the House. Even if it becomes law, she hopes Gov. Jared Polis will not commute the sentences of the men currently on death row.
The governor's spokesman, Conor Cahill, said Tuesday, "All clemency requests are weighty decisions that the Governor will judge on their individual merits."
Fields got support, and opposition to the ban, from Democratic Sen. Jessie Danielson of Wheat Ridge.
"There is no good vote here," she told fellow senators. "Some of you were committed one way or the other, maybe forever. I understand that and acknowledge how tough this is on you, too."
Opponents to the ban argued this week that the death penalty needed to be preserved for the worst offenders to prevent people who commit one murder, which would get them the maximum sentence of life without parole, from killing more victims, before they go to prison or while they're incarcerated.
"I don't like to see us use the death penalty, but I think it's important we have that tool," said Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling. "... I believe that the Bible tells me the direction that I need to go, and why the death penalty is important to society."
Sen. Angela Williams, D-Denver, added that as a Catholic she could not condone what she characterized as state-sanctioned murder.
"I shed no tears knowing [the three death row inmates] will never set foot out of prison," Williams said.
Later in the floor debate, Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley, a former Weld County sheriff, pushed back on the characterization.
"It's very difficult; that's why we only have three on death row," he said of cases that merit the death penalty. "That's because we're saving it for the worst of the worst. I kind of question whether, if Osama Bin Laden had flown a plane into this building or any building downtown and killed several thousand Coloradans, would we not say, 'He deserves the death penalty.'"
Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, tried and failed to pass an amendment in committee Monday to put the question to a statewide vote.
Fields said her murdered son would be 37 years old this week. She questioned whether the legislature wanted to send that message to society's most violent criminals.
"Evil does exist and we need to have a way to deal with the evil we're confronted with," Fields said.
She countered arguments that trying death row cases is a financial burden on the state, an argument made repeatedly in a six-hour committee hearing on Tuesday. Fields went through budget documents on the floor of the Senate to make the case that isn't shown by the numbers.
In committee, George Brauchler, the Republican district attorney in the southeast Denver metro region (who sought the death penalty against the Aurora theater killer, James Holmes), said that cases that would normally plead out will go to trial, if criminals facing murder charges aren't afraid of the death penalty.
On Twitter, just before the vote was taken Thursday, Brauchler tweeted, "@SenRhondaFields continues to be a champion for victims and for justice. She is also the innocent person most directly impacted by #coleg decision to lower the bar for the worst of the worst murderers, including Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray."
Sen Owen Hills, R-Colorado Springs, said justice shouldn't be defined in terms of money and efficiency.
By any definition, "the idea of innocent until proven guilty is an expensive proposition," he said. "The idea of a guaranteed trial by your peers is an expensive proposition."
Hill pivoted to the "higher ideals" of justice and the value of life.