Cellhouse 1, Pod A Sterling Correctional Facility

Cellhouse 1, Pod A at the Sterling Correction Facility.

Colorado is poised to become the 22nd state to outlaw the death penalty, but don’t make the mistake of saying this is just the latest example of what happens with Democrats in control of the state House, Senate and the governor’s office.

Colorado Democrats were in control last year, too, and the repeal measure failed. This year’s bill passed the Senate with Republican support and passed the House despite Democrat opposition. Gov. Jared Polis is expected to sign Senate Bill 100 this month.

And that’s a good thing, although at one time I was such a supporter of the death penalty that I wrote a column for The Albuquerque Tribune that began:

“We’re spending $50,000 to kill convicted murderer Terry Clark when rope sells for 20 cents a foot. Talk about overkill. If New Mexico finally executes a murderer after a 30-year hiatus why can’t it go coach instead of first class?”

I now agree with ACLU Colorado when it says, “The death penalty is not reserved for the ‘worst of the worst,’ just for the most broken of the broken.”

Colorado has never been gung-ho on imposing the death penalty, unlike, say Texas, which executes people convicted on the flimsiest of evidence and at times without the mental capacity to participate in their defense.

Three people reside on Colorado’s death row, which is three too many for state Rep. Jeni Arndt, a Democrat from Fort Collins. She took over the effort to repeal the death penalty when Sen. Lucia Guzman was termed out of office after 2018. Guzman, an ordained minister, opposed the death penalty although her father had been killed in a robbery.

Arndt said she called Guzman and asked, “Would you trust me to take this on?”

Fast forward to the summer of 2019, when Arndt and Republican Sen. Jack Tate of Centennial were eating lunch. She asked her “really good friend” if he might support her death penalty bill in the upcoming session.

Tate surprised her by upping the ante.

“I think I’ll try to do it with you, Jeni,” he replied.

He had been on the fence about repealing the death penalty during the 2019 session. Afterward, while visiting his mother in Nashville, he read the book “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson, which is billed as an “unforgettable account of an idealistic, gifted young lawyer's coming of age” in Alabama.

Tate read of the problems with zealous prosecutors, inept defense attorneys and how race is a factor in deciding whether to put someone to death.

With Tate as one of the Senate sponsors, Arndt said she had a “good feeling” about what would happen with the repeal. The bill also was sponsored by two other Democrats, Sen. Julie Gonzales of Denver, and Rep. Adrienne Benavidez of Adams County.

Senate Bill 100 made a painful journey through the legislature.

Two of the men on death row were convicted of killing Sen. Rhonda Fields’ son and his fiancee, because Javad Marshall-Fields planned to testify at a murder trial. Fields was inspired to run for office because of the death of the two 22-year-olds, who were buried together.

The Aurora Democrat voted against the repeal bill after speaking for hours during the debate.

“What side of history do you want to be on? Who are you serving? Who are you protecting?” she asked her colleagues.

One of three Democrats in the House to oppose the repeal was Rep. Tom Sullivan of Centennial, whose son Alex was one of 12 people killed by James Holmes in the 2012 Aurora Theater shooting. Holmes escaped the death penalty in a decision that shocked capital punishment supporters.

Fields' and Sullivan's opposition to the repeal is understandable.They will feel a void for the rest of their lives.  

My early support of the death penalty can be traced to my career covering the police beat. I hung out at the cop shop and listened to their stories and I interviewed too many victims.

The crimes were horrific, which is why I was incensed that New Mexico was spending $50,000 to build a special room to kill Clark, a ranch hand who raped a 9-year-old girl and then shot her in the back of the head three times. He was out on bond appealing a previous conviction of sexually assaulting a 6-year-old girl.

I thought the state was better off giving the money to the girl’s family.

Clark waived his appeals in 1999, and was executed by lethal injection in 2001. He was the first and only person to be executed in New Mexico between reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976 — the U.S. Supreme Court halted executions in 1972 — and its subsequent abolition in New Mexico in 2009.

The death penalty in Colorado was reinstated in 1979.

I supported capital punishment when I moved from New Mexico to Colorado in 1993 to become a police reporter for the Rocky Mountain News. That year I covered the shooting at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in Aurora, where four employees were shot and killed and a fifth employee was seriously wounded.

Nathan Dunlap, a 19-year-old former pizzeria employee, was sentenced to death in 1996. He joined other men on death row, but in less than a decade he was the only one left:

  • In 1997, Gary Davis became the first Colorado inmate executed in 30 years.
  • In 2001, Ronald Lee White was sentenced to life in prison after his death sentence was commuted when undisclosed evidence was found.
  • In 2002, Frank Rodriguez died on death row from Hepatitis C complications.
  • In 2003, the Supreme Court overturned a 1995 law replacing juries with a panel of three judges. That resulted in Francisco Martinez, George Woldt and William “Cody” Neal being sentenced to life in prison instead of death.
  • In 2005, Robert Harlan had his death sentence changed to life in prison after a court ruled jurors improperly consulted a Bible when deciding his sentence.

Dunlap was alone on death row until he was joined by Sir Mario Owens in 2007 and Robert Ray in 2009. Both received the death penalty for the killing of Marshall-Fields and his fiancee, Vivian Wolfe.

Dunlap’s execution date was set for August 2013, but Gov. John Hickenlooper, now a candidate for the U.S. Senate, signed a temporary reprieve that postponed it indefinitely.

By then, I already had a change of heart on the death penalty, thanks to journalism and science.

Illinois Gov. George Ryan halted executions in 2000 after an investigation by the Chicago Tribune that revealed unreliable informants and inept attorneys helped put people on death row. Two years later, the Republican governor commuted all death sentences.

On the science front, DNA has exonerated one prisoner after another, including some after they were already executed. Type “DNA frees inmate” into Google and your heart will sink.

Colorado is making the right decision.


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