Criminal justice system

Man in prison

A bill to change the felony murder statute from a sentence of life in prison without parole to a maximum of 48 years won a 22-13 vote in the state Senate Wednesday.

Felony murder is currently a subset of the first degree murder charge, according to Senate Bill 124 sponsor Sen. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs. But those convicted of felony murder are not actually the ones who commit the murder. Lee explained that those defendants are unaware of the intent of the person who commits the murder, although they may be involved in a related crime, like burglary, robbery or other felonies outlined in the bill. 

Final Senate debate included an impassioned plea against the bill from Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, whose son and his fiance were murdered by two men who were convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death. Those sentences were commuted last year when the General Assembly repealed the death penalty statute.

"We're trying to change the narrative" on the intent of murder, she told the Senate, to one of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. "What about the victim? Was the victim in the wrong place at the wrong time? We do not need to redefine the intent of murder!"

Reading from the fiscal note, Fields claimed the cost of murder — the cost to incarcerate — $46,738 per offender per year. "What value are you putting on life?" she shouted. Near tears, Fields said "my son's life was worth more than that."

You just heard the voice of a victim, said Sen. Jim Smallwood, R-Parker, who followed Fields to the podium, and how the bill, if passed, would make victims and their families feel. Citizens don't feel safe and this won't help with that, Smallwood said. 

Lee reminded senators that what happened to Fields' son and fiance is not what SB 124 is intended to deal with. "I'm reluctant to talk about this bill. I can't imagine the unspeakable, indescribable sorrow our colleague has gone through. My heart goes out to her ... But the defendants who engaged in this act against our colleague were convicted of first degree, premeditated murder, not felony murder," which is a subset of first degree murder and occurs when there is no intent. 

Those who testified in committee were literally along for the ride, Lee said, not intending to kill or knowing that someone else would engage in the act. They were engaged in a felony and a person died in the course of it. They didn't intend it, expect it or participate in it, he said. To suggest that the existence of felony murder in state law serves as a deterrent to murder is fallacious and inconsistent with the testimony of people who have been convicted of it, Lee added.

Fields joined 12 Republicans in voting against the bill. Among those voting in favor with the Democrats: Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Douglas County; Sen. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson; and former Weld County Sheriff, Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley. Cooke had voted in favor of the bill when it was in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Senate Bill 124 now heads to the House, where it will be sponsored by Rep. Mike Weissman, D-Aurora, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee. 

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