Bill to end death penalty advances

Legislation would transfer savings to aid in probes of unsolved killings

A plan to eliminate the death penalty in Colorado and transfer the savings toward a team that would investigate the state’s more than 1,400 unsolved murders, passed its first hurdle by lawmakers this week.

After hours of often tearful witness testimony and deliberation that lasted well into Monday night, House Bill 1274 passed the House Judiciary Committee and now heads to the Appropriations Committee.

The bill, introduced by House Majority Leader Paul Weissmann, D-Louisville, aims to use savings from abolishing the death penalty to fund a cold-case team headed by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.

“I’m a hurting mother,” Dianne Harrell testified during the hearing Monday. “What I would like is justice for my son. I’m told that as cases come in, they have to put my son’s case down and work on others.”

Harrell’s son, Bruce Harrell was gunned down Jan. 11, 2006, as he was leaving a Denver Nuggets game.

Dianne Harrell said she would rather have funds dedicated to solving murders like her son’s than have the death penalty. In the past 30 years, only one person in Colorado has been executed, and only two men are on death row today, said Howard Morton, head of the group Families of Homicide Victims & Missing Persons.

He said $1 million from state’s $3 million in funding each year for the death penalty could go toward cold-case investigations. That could give investigators reason to crack back open the files on 1,420 unsolved murder cases, Morton said.

According to Morton’s group, Grand Junction and Mesa County have 14 unsolved homicide cases from the past few decades. Although Colorado law enforcement agencies are required by law to investigate cold cases, there is no direct funding to do so.

Weissmann made the proposal in 2007, and the bill narrowly was defeated on the House floor.
Frank Birgfeld, father of missing Grand Junction woman Paige Birgfeld, also testified at the hearing. He said he believes his daughter was murdered, and he doesn’t think whoever committed the crime was deterred by the thought of possibly receiving the death penalty.

He also jabbed at Grand Junction Rep. Steve King, who has said he supports funding cold-case investigations, but not at the expense of abolishing the death penalty. Birgfeld said if it were King’s children who were missing, the lawmaker may be more likely to vote for such a bill.

King said Tuesday he did not vote for the bill because he believes there are certain crimes, such as the murder of a prison guard, a prisoner orchestrating the murder of a witness, or a terrorist attack that warrant a death-penalty sentence. King has said he favors funding for cold-case investigations, but he didn’t see this bill as the way to do that.

“In my mind you’re talking about two totally different issues,” he said.


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