DENVER – Democrats who control Colorado’s Legislature acted quickly on a bill to repeal the state’s little-used death penalty, with the Senate Judiciary Committee advancing the legislation just two days after it was introduced.
The committee voted 3-2 on party lines after hours of public testimony Wednesday to send the bill to the full Senate for debate.
Proponents argued the death penalty doesn’t deter violent crime and affects people of color disproportionately. Repeal opponents urged lawmakers to refer the issue to voters, and some crime victims admonished bill sponsors for not reaching out to them before introducing the bill.
Its speedy consideration followed a contentious Democrat-led proposal this week to overhaul oil and gas regulations to give local governments more authority over industry operations. Republicans and energy industry executives have demanded time to study its content.
Denver Sen. Angela Williams, a sponsor of the death penalty repeal measure, noted that all three people facing execution in Colorado are African American – evidence, she said, of racial inequities in the criminal justice system. She also pointed to the difficulty of getting death penalty convictions and the cost in pursuing them.
“It’s a barbaric practice. It’s time to remove it from the books in Colorado,” Williams said.
Lawmakers have tried before to repeal Colorado’s death penalty, which was last applied in 1997. Gary Lee Davis died by lethal injection for the 1986 kidnapping, rape and murder of a neighbor, Virginia May.
First-term Democratic Gov. Jared Polis supports the 2019 bill, which would apply to offenses charged on or after July 1, and has told Colorado Public Radio he would commute the three death sentences if it passes.
John Hickenlooper, Polis’ predecessor and a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, indefinitely delayed the execution of Nathan Dunlap in 2013. Hickenlooper said he had doubts about the fairness of the death penalty.
Dunlap killed four people inside an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in 1993. Robert Ray and Sir Mario Owens were sentenced to die for killing Javad Marshall-Fields and his fiancee, Vivian Wolfe, as they drove on a suburban Denver street in 2005.
Marshall-Fields was the son of Rhonda Fields, now a Democratic senator who has vocally supported the death penalty. Fields’ daughter and Marshall-Fields’ sister, Maisha Fields, said Wednesday her mother was stunned to hear about the bill. Williams said she informed Fields about her intent to bring the bill last fall.
“We have real pain, and our trauma is not for sale for your political gain,” Maisha Fields told the bill’s supporters.
Bobby Stephens, who was shot in the face by Dunlap in the restaurant attack, said he, too, was surprised by the bill’s quick introduction. He said voters should decide.
“Nobody has reached out to the victims in these cases,” Stephens said. “This decision is so important that it goes beyond any of us in this room.”
First-term Democratic Rep. Tom Sullivan, whose son, Alex, was killed in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting, also has supported the death penalty. Theater shooter James Holmes is serving a life sentence.
The prosecutor in that case, Arapahoe District Attorney George Brauchler, and several fellow district attorneys said voters should decide whether to repeal. Denver District Attorney Beth McCann argued for the bill.
“For me it is a moral issue,” McCann said. “I do not believe the state should be in the business of killing people.”
A proposal to repeal the death penalty this year in neighboring Wyoming’s Republican-controlled Legislature drew far more support from lawmakers there than ever before. Lawmakers cited cost and argued it may not deter violent crime. Wyoming’s House passed death-penalty repeal but it failed in the Senate.