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March 21, 2013 08:32 AM UTC

Death Penalty Repeal Maneuvers Getting Interesting

  • by: Colorado Pols

AP reports via CBS4:

Colorado’s debate over repealing the death penalty will stay on hold, for now, after a state House committee decided Wednesday to delay a ballot measure on doing away with the punishment.

The ballot-measure suggestion was the second Democratic death-penalty proposal in as many days to go on ice. On Tuesday, an outright repeal was delayed by a separate committee after nine hours of emotional testimony on both sides.

The sponsor of the death-penalty ballot question, Rep. Rhonda Fields, is a supporter who proposed the ballot measure because she supports the death penalty and believes voters would decide to keep it…

As the Denver Post's Kurtis Lee reported yesterday, Gov. John Hickenlooper has more or less delivered a veto threat over House Bill 1264, the legislation sponsored by Reps. Jovan Melton and Claire Levy to outright repeal the death penalty in Colorado. Rep. Rhonda Fields, whose son was murdered in a witness intimidation plot that resulted in two men on Colorado's death row, is a steadfast proponent of retaining it as an option.

It should be noted that House Bill 1264 has also been sponsored by Republican Rep. Kevin Priola, who claims to be acting out of conscience in reflection of the Catholic Church's position against capital punishment. We haven't checked to see how Priola voted on this issue previously, but we don't remember him speaking up when the death penalty was debated in 2009. 

In any event, the situation creates some interesting dynamics. Rep. Fields, who has been vilified and threatened during the debate over gun safety legislation she sponsored, is now the ally of conservatives who want to keep the death penalty. Her bill to put the question before voters, House Bill 1270, creates an "out" for wavering Democrats on the repeal bill, which is now further jeopardized by Gov. Hickenlooper's veto threat. Of course, if the repeal bill dies, it's quite possible Rep. Fields would not let her measure go forward, unless a deal was struck to do that. Rep. Fields believes that a death penalty repeal would fail with voters, though opinion on that is not unanimous.

The debate over repealing the death penalty this year is taking place against a backdrop of an impressive list of pent-up wins for Democrats after two years of GOP control stymied all but the least controversial pieces of legislation. We've spoken even with some death penalty opponents who are concerned about the issue being lost, or even intentionally sacrificed, to better position Democrats politically on everything else they've accomplished.

With philosophical and strategic implications, this mostly intra-majority debate is one to watch.


33 thoughts on “Death Penalty Repeal Maneuvers Getting Interesting

  1. I was all fired up to disagree until I got to the part about pent-up wins. I'm not going to be the one who says what's too fast, but too fast probably is a reality at some point.

    That said, I oppose the death penalty and respectfully disagree with Rep. Fields.

  2. Bill will move forward, despite shenanigans:

    Also, I made a few calls and my sense from people who were at the meeting with the Governor is that he did not threaten a veto. He was asked directly if he had ruled out vetoing, and he said no, but then stressed that it was because he is (as he has been all along this process) undecided. 

    When asked a broader question about if he would veto a bill that the dems in the legislature overwhelmingly supported, he said that if he disagreed with them, yes, he would. That quote was used a bit out of context. 

    My personal opinion is that he will neither sign, nor veto, the legislation, but will let it become law without his input. 

    It is also my opinion that the sponsors should move forward with what they believe is right and not fear the political ramifications of a veto. Just like the sponsors of the Civil Unions legislation moved forward when they were assured defeat. You often have to lose a few times before you can win. The process of moving the bill gets people talking and shifts public opinion. 

  3. In my opinion, every decision he makes has his national ambitions in mind.

    Pro death penalty, tough on crime, anti marijuana, pro gun legislation, pro LGBT issues all play well with national polls. I think that he's wrong on anti marijuana, but fracking is the big issue where he is running into resistance. I don't see him changing his position. He could wind up more popular in a national race than he will in Colorado if he sues communities that ban fracking.

    I don't have any skin in the game anymore, but he's playing his cards for the big game.

    1. Jovan had abolition to the death penalty listed on his issue page on his website during the entirety of his primary–his willingness to put this issue front and center was one of the reasons I so strongly supported him and told every abolitionist I knew they needed to get behind Jovan.

      I understand this is a hard issue for many, but not for me.  The taking of life, even when justified in war or self defense, damages the person taking that life.  My grandfather killed many people in world war II and I remember that he never slept during the entirety of my childhood when I lived with him.

      What is worse with the death penalty–Executing a person is not self defense, it is the cold, calculated extinguishing of another life.   We are asking an employee of the state to perform the state sanctioned murder of a person in our name.

      I understand rage and the need for vengence, I live with my demons every day, but i do not want my government to feed my demons, I want it to feed my angels. 

      When I was younger I was a soft death penalty oponent.  I didn't worry about my angels and demons, but I knew that it wasn't a deterent, was applied in a racial suspect manner, cost way too much money and the justice system being fallible, risked the state killing the innocent.

      But then I became friends with someone who lost a family member at the chucky cheese and who testified at sentencing for Nathan Dunlap to recieve life instead of death.  Her moral courage in the face of such a great personal loss made me reexamine my position and put it on a much stronger footing.

      A few years later when I lost people I knew to Osama Bin Laden, I cried out in rage, and years later when he was killed in the raid, I would have paid money to kill him with my bare hands.  But that would have fed my demons.

      To those that see inconsistency with choice/abortion I recognize your point and it goes back to definitions.  I don't believe that nonviable fetuses are human beings, but I am willing to entertain certain arguments past the point of viability.  We can all agree that the three men on Colorado's death row are living human beings, it is just that people who support the death penalty think they have the right to extinguish those lives in cold blood.

      I am so very proud of Jovan and the other cosponsors, their strength and moral leadership inspires me.  I give special thanks to Kevin Priola.  I believe he has reexamined his life and his faith and decided to be consistent with the Chatholic church.  While that means he opposes abortion and civil unions, it also means he supports ASSET and the abolition of the death penalty and accepts the basic dignity of all people.

      I am deeply disapointed in policians that want to punt this to the ballot and refuse to lead.  Leadership is getting in front of the public and explaining why we have to do something.  Putting Ref I (Civil Unions) on the ballot in 2006 set gay rights back by years.  To those that say "we got it now, what's a few years"–I say tell that to the people who lost partners in those few years and never got to see the victory.

      I will fight for the abolition of the death until it is ended because to do less would make me complicit.

  4. I hope the Democrats don't stop now.  I also hope that they put the matter to a vote of the people.  The death penalty was instituted by the people and it should be repealed by the people.  That's just how I feel.  I am not so gloomy on the prospect of repeal by the people.  There have been years of negative publicity about wrongly convicted people and I think they have made an impact.  The cost of death penalty cases is just way out of line , Catholics who are anti-choice because of their church's teaching can be convinced to vote for this, and almost nobody gets the death penalty even when DA's go for it.  I say put repeal to a vote.  I think it will be repealed.

    1. Not arguing with you, I really don't know. How was the death penalty instituted "by the people"? As far as I know, it's been there since Colorado began. And the enabling language is in statute. 

      1. How was the death penalty instituted "by the people"? As far as I know, it's been there since Colorado began. And the enabling language is in statute.   

        Good question, Indy.  I was covering the legislature when the SCOTUS threw out the death penalty in Furman v. Georgia.   The statute re-instating it was drafted as a referred law, so the final decision was indeed left to the people.   Scotus later threw out another set and it was again redrafted and submitted to people.   So the people have voted several times in favor of it.   I personally support the death penalty when appropriate and oppose legislative attempts to repeal it outright.   But I think it would be ok to let the people speak on it.

  5. In taking another's life, vengeance is not mine. I reject it both as a human being and as a member of the Colorado body politic.

    Time and again the death sentence has been shown not to be a deterrent to murder.

    Murder by society is no more moral than murder by an individual.

    As a member of society I have no right to ask another to fire the rifle, pull the switch, inject the poison or cast the stones on my behalf and thereby force him or her to become a murderer.

    Those, including the agrieved, who ask me to underwrite societal murder are asking me to waste my taxes: The preparation for and the application of the death penalty itself and all the appeals it engenders are more costly to society than all other alternatives.

    Summary murder precludes redemption. The taking of that option from any person is heinous, one of the most reprehensible judgements to be made upon another human being.

    Murder by society is a religious holdover from the barbaric origins of "civilization". As we move forward toward a more humane interaction, it must be abandoned along with other horrible barbaric religio-political practices.

    We have murdered too, too many innocents on faulty evidence, inept or dishonest witnessing and prosecutorial malpractice. One is too, too many to be perpetrated in our name..

    Vengeance is not only not mine, it should be not ours.

    Those, including the agrieved such as Rep. Fields, who wish to claim ownership of vengeance murder must pursue it on their own and claim ownership of its consequenses. Vigilantism? Whatever. They shouldn't ask us to do their dirty work for them anymore.


    1. I can respect that as your religious viewpoint, GL, but it is emphatically not mine.  You obviously can't prove the death penalty is not a deterrent, any more than I can prove it is.   But what it is in some of the most horrendous cases is justice.   The brutal chuck e. cheese murders — killing four people in cold blood for some chump change — cannot be defended, nor is it adequate to just send him to prison.  The worst of the worst should be removed from the gene pool.   And if you try to argue that the killer in this case may be innocent, I can't respect that at all. Dunlop was proven guilty beyond all reasonable doubt.  If there is doubt, sure, go for life.   There is in fact not one single case of a post Furman execution where the departed has been shown to be innocent.   As for removing the possibility of redemption — get real.   If you mean he'll come to Jesus and go to heaven, I don't believe in that religious concept and you don't have the right to force me to believe in it.   Would you equate the GIs that liberated the death camps with the Nazi guards who ran them because both killed — the guards killed the Jews out of hate and the GIs killed the guards to stop the genocide, so they're equally guilty?

      No, I can respect your fervent views, but they are pure emotion and you can't make a case based on reason to support them — or at any rate, you didn't try, settling for loading your agument with "societal murder" and the like.   

      1. Of course, this is an emotional issue, for people on both sides. (You show a bit of it in your reply and I feel it must be respected.) And of course we can't prove what has not yet happened. I should have written, "We have absolutely no evidence that foreknowledge of the death penalty has ever stopped a murderer." Or something to that effect. That said, our civic regulation should be based on evidence that the laws are not only necessary but effective. If they are not likely to do what they're intended to do, they aren't worth the unintended consequenses (e.g., killing of innocents). Is the death penalty meant to prevent someone from committing a terrible crime, or is its purpose vengeance? Speaking to the emotion of  the issue, it seems to me to be the latter.

        Redemption? I'm not a believer in the Pearly Gates theory myself. But I do believe that each of us (except, perhaps, the deranged) has the ability to recognize our "sins" and reject our commission of them, pay the price within our conscience and attempt to continue to pay that price to our fellow human beings, for the rest of our lives if necessary. Regardless, should "sins" be recognized in our laws, and (given their religious and, perhaps, genetic origins) should we as a body politic continue to punish them, especially when that punishment demands the ultimate  irreclaimable severity,  death?

        I know of no crimes committed by the GIs who liberated the death camps, so, of course, your question lies outside any discussion of the death penalty, especially in Colorado law. To answer it, though: No. And, furthermore, killing another human being is not always a crime. It is, however, always horrible, and if we can avoid it (which we as a society can by repealing the death penalty) we must.

        Sure "societal murder" is loaded. Would you prefer "societal cleansing"?

        Thanks for challenging my (yes, emotional, but not "pure emotion") post, Voyageur. You've helped me clarify my thinking on the subject, though my expression of that thinking is not as clear as I'd like.




      2. Come on Voyageur, surely you've heard of Cameron Todd Willingham.  And please don't take a Fleadenesque parsing of "shown to be."

        Even excluding the potential for executing the innocent, the racism in applying the death penalty is reason enough to do away with it.  Blacks get the DP for killing whites at multiples of the reverse.  When wrongfully applying the punishment is irremediable, perfection in its application should be the standard.  Human beings will never be perfect, so our punishments need to be reversible.


        1. Daft one, don't call me Shirley!   And I have to admitted, if Cameron Todd Willham is a household word, it's not my household.  On the the other hand, I challenge you to name even one of Ted Bundy's victims.   We lionize the killers amongst us, ignore the victims.  

            1. The other medical expert was James P. Grigson, a forensic psychiatrist. He testified so often for the prosecution in capital-punishment cases that he had become known as Dr. Death. (A Texas appellate judge once wrote that when Grigson appeared on the stand the defendant might as well “commence writing out his last will and testament.”) Grigson suggested that Willingham was an “extremely severe sociopath,” and that “no pill” or treatment could help him. Grigson had previously used nearly the same words in helping to secure a death sentence against Randall Dale Adams, who had been convicted of murdering a police officer, in 1977. After Adams, who had no prior criminal record, spent a dozen years on death row—and once came within seventy-two hours of being executed—new evidence emerged that absolved him, and he was released. In 1995, three years after Willingham’s trial, Grigson was expelled from the American Psychiatric Association for violating ethics. The association stated that Grigson had repeatedly arrived at a “psychiatric diagnosis without first having examined the individuals in question, and for indicating, while testifying in court as an expert witness, that he could predict with 100-per-cent certainty that the individuals would engage in future violent acts.”

      3. Voyageur: Re "There is in fact not one single case of a post Furman execution where the departed has been shown to be innocent": No court continues to consider evidence of innocence after execution.  That would serve no purpose and would weaken public confidence in the integrity of the capital punishment system, after all.  But read this, then ask yourself: If Timothy Masters had been 18 when Peggy Hettrick was murdered, would he have been around to be exonerated?

        Re possible bias in the administration of capital punishment: Does anybody here seriously believe that it's a coincidence that the three residents of Colorado's death row are African-Americans who committed their crimes in the 18th Judicial District?  There are lots of people who committed equally heinous crimes who are not on death row.

        Re Rhonda Fields: If I were she, I would want to personally kill the folks who killed her son and his fiancee with my bare hands.  I have a lot of sympathy for her.  However, I do not want to have state-sanctioned murder-by-proxy on my soul or my conscience, and I agree with the witness who testified that you can release an innocent man from prison, but not from the grave.

        Re deterrence: There is no proof that capital punishment deters anything.  That's an illusion designed to ease our consciences.  The death penalty is retribution, period.

        And finally: I wish Tim McVeigh had been around a while longer.  I believe he went to his grave with information about the OKC bombing that would have shed light on right-wing militia movements and the dangers they continue to present.  If we hadn't been so damn quick to kill him, he might have given some of that information.  Why was it so damn important to stick a needle in his arm so fast?

        No mas; I'm starting to sound like Nock.

      4. I respectfully disagree with you Voyageur. Like PERA I really wish McVeigh was still alive. Not just for info we may be able to get from him but to study and try to figure out how a dude gets to where he arrived

        1. Me too. Respectfully. You can't undo a wrongful death penalty after it has been carried out.  Would guess  that high rate states such as Texas have executed innocents wrongly and, in general, I'm willing to join the rest of the civilized world on this issue as well as on universal health care.

    2. I look at it from a different angle.  Life imprisonment is a pretty significant punishment.  Who is to say that it isn't worse than the death penalty (especially when the person is imprisoned from a young age)?  And it may even be cheaper than the death penalty (not sure on this one – just based on stuff I've heard that I haven't verified).  As such, what good reason is there to have a death penalty in many cases? 

      1. Elliot Fladen wrote:

        Who is to say that it isn't worse than the death penalty (especially when the person is imprisoned from a young age)?  And it may even be cheaper than the death penalty […]

        I think which option is cheaper really depends on who you talk to. I’d be interested in seeing a truly independent study (i.e. not affiliated with either the pro or anti-death penalty camps) on this question—life imprisonment could very well be cheaper, especially when you consider the cost of appeals. There are those out there who propose reducing the number of appeals, but I consider that unacceptable–there have been too many innocent people, who were fortunate enough to eventually be exonerated before being executed, under the current system. Reducing the number of appeals, only makes it that much more likely that an innocent person will be executed.  Imprisoning an innocent person is not good–but that person can at least receive compensation and an apology. However, executing an innocent person is indefensible, as it irreversible–there's very little you can do to remedy the situation (the persons dead).

        Arguably, life imprisonment is a better punishment: a criminal forced to spend the rest of your life behind bars is almost worse than being executed. This is especially trure when you’re talking about terrorists—executing say a captured  Al-Qaeda leader turns him into a martyr), whereas forcing the same terrorist to spend the rest of his life behind bars, fading from notoriety , instead of dying a martyr, is almost a punishment.  

  6. The question isn't whether to "have a death penalty in many cases" Elliott.  The question is whether to have it at all.   Ted Bundy?  Hitler?  A man serving a life sentence who kills a guard or another inmate, thereby losing his smoking privileges for two weeks?   Are the worst among us to be super-citizens free to prey without serious consequences.   Colorado has in fact executed just one person, rapist-murderer Gary Davis, post Furman.   That's hardly a rush to judgment.

      1. Well, very few killers agree with you.   The ones who do, like What's his Face…Gary Gilmore… don't appeal their sentences.   But most cling desperately to their squalid lives.

  7. Another unexpected angle:

    Clements: Redemption & Life. From the New York Times.

    As Dir. of DOC, his surprising stance on the death penalty: "…and when it came time for him to talk, he gave the most eloquent, restrained argument against the death penalty.”

    “Everyone assumed he would be for it, because he works with the worst elements of society day in and day out,” the governor continued, using the present tense. “Everyone was dumbstruck.”

    But Clements had done the math, and it was costing governments more to execute someone, what with all the legal buildup, than to incarcerate him or her. Clements had also noticed a randomness in who got killed and who didn’t: the executed weren’t the ones who’d committed the most heinous crimes. And then there were Clements’s religious beliefs.

    “He believed,” Hickenlooper said, “that only God can decide to take a life.”

  8. The entire Clements story is shaping up to resemble a complex novel or film. No punching up for dramatic effect or inter-related narratives and characters would be required to turn this into a "based on" novel or dramatization.  It's pure Shakespearean tragedy all on its own.  What loss. What sorrow. What a terrible thing.

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