Sharletta Evans

Sharletta Evans talks about the death of her 3-year-old son at the hands of a drive-by shooting in 1995. She was at the Colorado Capitol Monday, Jan. 27, 2020, to argue for the repeal of the death penalty to invest more in violence prevention.

The potential for repealing Colorado's death penalties attracted arguments Monday from Colorado prosecutors — on opposing sides of the issue.

Denver District Attorney Beth McCann spoke in favor of repeal, while fellow prosecutors George Brauchler of Douglas and Arapahoe counties, Dave Young of Adams County, Dan May of El Paso County and Clifford Riedel of Larimer County argued against the repeal. 

"It is a moral issue for me," said McCann, a former Democratic state legislator. "I do not believe that the state should be in the business of killing people."

The Senate Judiciary Committee heard six hours of testimony on Senate Bill 100 Monday afternoon, before voting 3-2 along party lines to move the bill to the Senate floor.

That's still a long way from the governor's desk for legislation that's fallen apart six times at the statehouse since 2007, and the proposals have been discussed six other years.

This year's bill, however, has bipartisan support, though it is still opposed by state Sen. Rhonda Fields, an influential, if not revered, legislator from Aurora. 

Among the lawyers, academics, advocates and civil libertarians was a strong religious element to Monday's testimony.

Bishop Jorge Rodriguez, the archbishop for the Diocese of Denver, reminded the committee why Catholics oppose the death penalty.

"Even those who committed horrible crimes and are in prison are not outside of Christ’s mercy," he told the committee. "In fact, he counts them as his 'least brothers.' The Catholic Church has long taught that every person, whether they are unborn, sick or sinful, has a God-given dignity that cannot be erased or taken away. Yes, it can be marred, but it cannot be blotted out in the eyes of God."

Of the three men on Colorado's death row, two have direct ties to Fields, whose son, Javad Marshall Fields, and his fiancee, Vivian Wolfe, were killed in a shooting in 2005, before he was scheduled to testify as a witness against gang members. Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray are awaiting their death sentence.

The pending legislation would not cover them, and apply to sentencing after July 1. Gov. Jared Polis has said he's ready to sign a death penalty repeal if the legislature can deliver him a bill, and Brauchler predicted he would commute the sentences of the three on death row, as well.

Maisha Fields, the daughter of the senator and the sister of Javad Marshall Fields, testified against the repeal.

She said activists rounded up supporters of the repeal, and that senators had decided how to vote before the hearing.

"This is a sad day for Colorado and for victims," Maisha Fields said.

She said the senators "get to decide what justice looks like for a grieving mother."

McCann said the argument that capital punishment is a deterrent doesn't hold up. McCann said the shooter in the Aurora theater massacre and other deadly assaults were not deterred by the potential of a death sentence.

"These cases take way too long and drain way too many resources," McCann said. 

Under question from Sen. John Cooke, a Republican from Greeley and a former Weld County sheriff, she conceded that the potential of a death sentence can be used in plea deals.

Riedel said murder cases that normally might be pleaded out will instead go to trial.

"Every first-degree murder case will go to trial," he said. "There will be no savings."

Young talked about "free murders," because once someone gets a life sentence for murder, the circumstances won't matter, including how many more people are involved or whether it's a child, a judge or a witness, referring to Fields' son.

Brauchler added, "What do you do? Send them to their cell with no Jello? No movie on Friday night?"

While other prosecutors said the matter should be decided by voters, McCann said it should be handled by the legislature. The ballot can be swayed by big-dollar donors and campaigns, she said.

"You are in a better position to have a calm and thoughtful discussion, like we're having today," McCann said.

Sen. Bob Gardner, a Republican from Colorado Springs, said politics play a role in the statehouse, as well. 

"The constituency that elected me overwhelmingly supports the death penalty, and I was elected because I agree with my constituency," he said.

Gardner made a failed motion to put the question on the November ballot.

"We either trust the people of Colorado  to do what they think, in their best judgment, is right, or we don't," Gardner said.

Sen. Pete Lee, a Democrat from Colorado Springs who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said he felt there is no doubt the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendments prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. 

"It's certainly cruel," he said of capital punishment. "What could be more cruel?"

Fields was not available for comment coming off the floor of the Senate or at her office Monday morning.

A collection of loved ones of crime victims supported the bill.

"Grief and trauma have wreaked havoc on my body and my soul," Sharletta Evans of Aurora said at the Capitol Monday. Her 3-year-old son was killed in a drive-by shooting in 1995. Two gang members got life in prison, and the driver, who was 16 years old, got a 10-year sentence for cooperating.

His brother, Calvin, was at his side, and Monday morning he was at his mother's side at the Capitol as she urged lawmakers to invest the millions they spend on prosecuting death penalty cases to instead use that money on prevention programs, especially related to gang violence.

"The death penalty in Colorado is a stain on our history," Evans said. "As one of the country's trendsetters, here in Colorado our reputation has suffered under the weight of it. We should focus our energy on the lives and the hope and the character of our young people and address the root causes of violence, rather than pouring our resources into a system that only comes at the end, when it's too late to distract us from our values of life."

Lieutenant Hollis said his niece, Faye Johnson, was 22 years old when she was was killed in Aurora by Vincent Groves in 1988 . Groves is believed to be Colorado's most prolific serial killer, taking the lives of 24 women between 1979 and 1988. He died in prison in 1996.

His niece left behind three daughters who received no help from the courts, while her killer became a cared-for celebrity behind bars.

Each time his name came up, through court proceedings or in the media, it kept the emotional wounds "fresh and festered," Hollis said.

Death penalty cases costs millions in the court and jail systems, plus decades to carry out. Since the death penalty was restored at the federal level in 1976, Colorado has carried out just one execution — Gary Lee Davis in 1997 for the 1986 kidnapping and rape of a neighbor, before he shot her to death. 

Gail Vanderjagt Rice spoke on behalf of her brother, the late Bruce Vanderjagt, a Denver police officer who was murdered by a burglar armed with an automatic rifle in 1997. The alleged shooter, Matthaeus Jaehnig, was found dead three hours later from a self-inflicted gunshot wound using Vanderjagt's service revolver he had apparently taken.

Rice had already been doing volunteer work in jails and prison and already opposed the death penalty, she said. It was a question of faith. She believes in restorative justice, an opportunity for atonement.

"I think that's God's plan for justice," she said. "The reason that I oppose the death penalty the most, among many reasons, is it violates my Christian faith."

Colorado lawmakers, mostly Democrats but some Republicans, are taking another legislative run at repealing the state's death penalty.

The legislation is sponsored by Republican Sen. Jack Tate of Centennial is sponsoring the bill with three Democrats: Sen. Julie Gonzales of Denver and Reps. Jeni Arndt of Fort Collins and Adrienne Benavidez of Adams County.

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