DENVER – Colorado is set to become the 22nd U.S. state to abolish the death penalty after lawmakers on Wednesday approved a repeal bill that Democratic Gov. Jared Polis has pledged to sign into law.
Passage had been virtually certain with Democrats holding a substantial majority in the House – even with several Democratic lawmakers casting no votes
The bill passed by the Democrat-dominated state Senate in January would apply to offenses charged starting July 1 and would not affect the fate of three men on Colorado’s death row who face execution by lethal injection. But Polis has suggested he might consider clemency for them if asked.
“All clemency requests are weighty decisions that the governor will judge on their individual merits,” said Polis spokesman Conor Cahill.
Colorado’s last execution was carried out in 1997, when Gary Lee Davis was put to death by lethal injection for the 1986 kidnapping, rape and murder of a neighbor, Virginia May.
Wednesday’s debate came after lawmakers spent 11 hours late Monday and early Tuesday engaging in somber and often emotional discussions about morality, personal faith, deterrence, discrimination against defendants of color and wrongful convictions.
Democratic Rep. Jovan Melton said all three of Colorado’s condemned men come from his suburban Denver district, are African-American and that blacks account for just 4% of Colorado’s 5 million residents.
“They’re African American, they’re males, my age. That’s not justice,” Melton said. “That is the last remnant of Jim Crow there is in Colorado.” He added that he wasn’t absolving them of their crimes.
But Republican and some Democratic opponents insisted that the threat of facing the death penalty has compelled countless defendants to seek plea deals to solve or close cases. They also urged their colleagues to refer the issue to voters in a referendum.
“I want to apologize to you all,” GOP Rep. Shane Sandridge said, addressing crime victims’ surviving loved ones. “I want to apologize to the jurors that have suffered through these cases and then watch people try to override your will.”
Several Western states have moved to abolish capital punishment or put it on hold in recent years, and no inmates have been executed in any state west of Texas in the past five years, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.
Political pushes for the repeal of the death penalty Wyoming, Utah and Ohio have emerged in recent years. Wyoming’s Legislature came close last year, and another initiative there this year had 26 Republican sponsors. Republicans hold 78 of Wyoming’s 100 legislative seats.