Bockenfeld, Buentello, table

Reps. Rod Bockenfeld, R-Adams County; Brianna Buentello, D-Pueblo. Photos courtesy their Facebook pages. Photo of execution table, courtesy KMGH.

On one side of the issue: Rep. Rod Bockenfeld, R-Adams County, represents the district where the last murder that earned an inmate an execution in Colorado took place. 

Bockenfeld was the only member of the House Republican caucus who did not speak during the two days of debate on repealing Colorado's death penalty, as contained in Senate Bill 100. He's recovering from hip surgery, and it's difficult for him to get around.

The House, on a 38-27 vote, sent the bill to Gov. Jared Polis, who is expected to sign it. Bockenfeld voted "no."

Bockenfeld told Colorado Politics after the final vote that he felt everyone else in his caucus thoroughly vetted the reasons for supporting the death penalty.

But he has a special connection to the issue: his district, which includes rural Adams and Arapahoe counties, includes the town of Byers. 

In 1986, Byers resident Ginny May was kidnapped, raped and murdered by a neighboring couple. The husband got the death penalty and was executed in 1997. The wife got life in prison, where she died in 2008.

Bockenfeld said the community where May lived, in the rural part of Arapahoe County, and along the eastern I-70 corridor, is a close-knit one. The execution helped the community heal, he said.

There was some division within the family on whether the death penalty was the right way to go, but the community was very upset about what happened. "You talk to folks on the I-70 corridor," and they and the family got justice when it reached its conclusion, he said. 

As to his own vote on Wednesday, "I'm very supportive of the victim. I believe in my district and that they wanted me to vote" the way he voted, which he said sometimes puts the views of his district above his personal beliefs. "I'm more concerned about the victims' healing than the well-being of the criminal."

Bockenfeld said he'd heard a little feedback from people on both sides of the issue. "I know how they feel about these kinds of issues from interacting with the community. I don't have to dig deep to find out how people feel," he said, adding that no one has brought up the May murder. "We move forward from here."

As to the future, Bockenfeld said he was disappointed that Democrats would not allow the issue to go to the ballot. He's hopeful that the citizens of Colorado who oppose the repeal will organize and bring forward a ballot measure. 

On the other side of the issue: Rep. Bri Buentello, D-Pueblo. 

For her, the vote is tied to an experience of meeting people last year who have been on death row.

Buentello visited one of the federal prisons in Fremont County last summer, and met men who had been sentenced to death when they were minors. They've since had their sentences commuted to life in prison, based on a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said imposing the death sentence on those who committed capital crimes when they were under 18 is cruel and unusual punishment.

"I was completely haunted by a classroom I saw" on that visit, Buentello said. Buentello, a teacher, looked at some of the schoolwork from these inmates. "Their stories broke my heart. What I heard was lack of impulse control and lack of guidance" for these at-risk youth, she said.

Although every crime they committed was absolutely heinous, she questioned whether a 14-year-old child should be sentenced to death, especially when most of them had learning disabilities, or social or emotional impairments that made it physically impossible for them to control themselves.

Her reasons also have to do with her faith and her family. 

"I cannot in good faith support a practice in which our state executes people, period" she said. And that includes a policy "that I can't take votes that I can't explain to my priest, and I find myself going to confession a lot" during the session. "I don't want to tell my priest that I didn't support a social justice cause because it was hard. I was elected, albeit by a very slim margin, to make tough decisions." 

Buentello won her 2018 election by 321 votes, the narrowest margin in victory of any statewide elected office in 2018. Her district includes Pueblo, Otero and Fremont counties, and had previously elected a moderate Republican in three elections before. 

There's one other factor in her vote: the vision of Joe Arridy, a mentally disabled Pueblo man who was wrongly convicted and executed in 1939 for the murder of a 15-year old Pueblo girl. Gov. Bill Ritter issued a full and unconditional posthumous pardon to Arridy in 2011.

Buentello said she could see in Arridy her own son, Noel, who is autistic. "As an empathetic person, as a Catholic, as a special ed teacher, there is no part of me that could ever sanction this practice."

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