While the number of death sentences carried out in the United States has been steadily decreasing over the last few decades, capital punishment is still authorized in 27 states. It is a widely debated issue across America, specifically its fairness, reliability, and cost.
Most recently, the death penalty was abolished in New Mexico (in 2009), Illinois (in 2011), Connecticut (in 2012), in Maryland (in 2013), New Hampshire (in 2019), and Virginia (in 2021). There is undoubtedly a nationwide trend towards getting rid of capital punishment altogether, particularly in the West. Public support for the law has decreased from 80% in 1994 to 56% in 2019.
But what of Colorado? The following article will detail Colorado’s abolishment of the death penalty in 2020, as well as everything else you need to know about capital punishment in said state.
The Abolishment Of The Death Penalty In Colorado
On March 23rd of 2020, Colorado abolished the death penalty. When Governor Jared Polis signed legislation to repeal the capital punishment statute, Colorado became the 22nd U.S. state to do so.
The abolishment meant that for the three prisoners on death row in Colorado at the time, their sentences were commuted to life, without possibility of parole.
The repeal bill was largely influenced by the 2018 midterm elections, which led to a Democrat supermajority in the House. Republican Senator Jack Tate, who sponsored the bill, said of the issue: ‘I just came to the conclusion I didn’t think the state of Colorado should have the power over life and death in any circumstance.’ The repeal bill passed the Senate with 19 votes to 13 on January 30th, and passed the House with 38 votes to 27 on February 26th.
Who Was On Death Row In Colorado When Capital Punishment Was Abolished?
There were three prisoners on death row in Colorado when capital punishment was abolished. Their sentences were commuted to life without parole. Governor Jared Polis commuted the sentences on the same day he signed the death penalty repeal bill into law, and he clarified that he hadn’t done so for humanitarian purposes- rather simply to reflect the updated Colorado law.
The three prisoners whose sentences were commuted had all gone to the same high school, Aurora Central High School in the city of Aurora. Nathan Dunlap had been condemned for shooting and killing four in a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant.
Sir Mario Owens had been on death row since 2008, for murdering a young couple who had been prosecution witnesses in a murder trial that involved Owens. Robert Ray, the third prisoner on death row at the time of capital punishment’s abolishment, had ordered Sir Mario Owens to murder said witnesses.
The History Of Capital Punishment In Colorado
Colorado’s first execution took place in 1859, when John Stoefel was sentenced to hanging. All those sentenced to death in Colorado were executed by hanging until 1934, when the state switched to lethal gas. Colorado was the second state to adopt this method. The execution method was changed once more in 1988 to lethal injection, and this was the method in practice at the time of capital punishment’s abolishment.
The last time a prisoner was actually executed by the state of Colorado was in 1997. It has also been decades since a death sentence was imposed. For years before its abolishment, Colorado juries avoided imposing death sentences. This was true of even high profile cases, such as the mass shooting at an Aurora movie theater, for which the perpetrator James Holmes was sentenced to life without parole.
2020 was actually not the first time that Colorado had abolished the death penalty. The state also abolished capital punishment back in 1897. This was short-lived, however, as it was reinstated in 1901.
There was also an attempt to abolish capital punishment in Colorado back in 2009, albeit an unsuccessful one. The bill, which would have moved death penalty funds to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation cold case fund, was passed in the Colorado House of Representatives with 33 votes to 32, but failed in the state Senate with 17 votes to 18.
Despite the fact that the bill would have saved the state an estimated $1 million a year, and despite the fact that the Colorado Bureau of Investigations cold case unit only had one staff member versus 1,400 unsolved murders, the death penalty was not to be abolished for 11 more years.
In 2002, the case of Ring v. Arizona saw the U.S. Supreme Court find that death sentences must be imposed by juries, rather than judges.
Famous Death Penalty Cases In Colorado
The most famous death penalty case in Colorado history didn’t actually result in a death sentence. The case in question regarded the 2012 movie theater shooting, in which 12 people were killed and many more were injured. Following a trial that lasted more than six months and cost Colorado taxpayers over $5 million, the perpetrator James Holmes was sentenced to life without parole.
Holmes would have been given the death sentence if all jurors had decided to impose it, but three of the jurors were not convinced to do so by the prosecution. After his offer to plead guilty in exchange for life without parole was rejected, Holmes pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.
While every mental health expert involved in the case agreed that Holmes would not have carried out the shooting if not for his mental illness, they could not agree on whether he acknowledged the criminality of his actions. The insanity defense was rejected, but due to the three aforementioned jurors, he avoided the death penalty.
Another famous death penalty case took place back in 1939, when Joe Arridy was convicted of sexually assaulting and killing a teenage girl, for which he was executed. In the 1990s, the case was re-examined, and it came to light that Arridy had been wrongfully implicated in the crimes.
Following a posthumous clemency petition, Governor Bill Ritter issued a full pardon in 2011, and stated that the case was ‘a tragic conviction [based] on a false and coerced confession.’
What Crimes Were Punishable By Death In Colorado?
When Colorado practiced the death penalty (so to speak), all those who committed class 1 felonies could have been put to death. These felonies included murder in the first degree (CRS 18-3-102), first degree kidnapping (CRS 18-3-301(1)), first-degree murder of a peace officer or fireman (CRS 18-3-107(1)), child abuse causing death of a child under 12 (CRS 18-6-401(7)(c)), treason (CRS 18-11-101), and assault during escape (CRS 18-8-206(1)(a)). Since the abolishment of capital punishment, the only possible sentence for all class 1 felonies is life in prison.
Who Was The Last Person Executed In Colorado?
The last person to be executed in Colorado was Gary Lee Davis, back in 1997. Davis kidnapped, raped, and murdered a woman in Adams County. He was the first prisoner to be executed in the state for 30 years. At the time of his execution, six men were also on death row, but none were executed before capital punishment was abolished.
Conclusion: Does Colorado Have The Death Penalty?
Colorado no longer has the death penalty, as it was abolished in 2020. Even before it was abolished, the state followed through on death sentences very rarely, with the most recent execution taking place back in 1997.
The debate surrounding the issue of capital punishment continues, and the next state most likely to abolish it is unclear.