Death penalty bill draws heated debate
DENVER — Democrats played politics Tuesday with a bill to do away with the death penalty, allowing proponents to speak so long some opponents left, Republicans said.
GOP lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee complained that the measure was introduced late Friday and was scheduled Monday for a hearing on Tuesday. That gave opponents little time to bring witnesses who support the death penalty to the committee to testify against it.
Republicans then complained that Rep. Daniel Kagan, D-Cherry Hills Village and chairman of the panel, allowed dozens of proponents to speak in favor of the bill for more than five hours, letting only two opponents testify against it during that time.
As a result, several opponents who did show got fed up and left the Capitol building.
House Minority Leader Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, also claimed Democrats violated the 24-hour public notification rule under the state’s open meetings laws, which is required before a bill can be heard in committee.
Many of those proponents were family members of murdered people who said they told prosecutors not to seek the death penalty in their cases. A number of them were for murders that dated back 30 years or more and in other states.
A number of those proponents also represented national groups that have long worked to repeal the death penalty nationwide.
Testimony did include one local case, that of Robert Dewey, who spent 18 years for a murder he didn’t commit. Dewey said the death penalty was discussed in his case, and it was a good thing it wasn’t sought or imposed.
“If they had, I wouldn’t have been there to get out. I’d already be dead,” said Robert Dewey, who was convicted in the 1994 murder of Jacie Taylor in Palisade but released last year when new DNA evidence exonerated him.
“Life without parole. It’s not a good thing. It’s not a picnic in there,” the 51-year-old told the committee, which delayed a vote on the bill.
“Every time you wake up it’s like, ‘Why am I here? Oh.’ That’s more of a mind game. You get a lethal injection, that’s a time cut.”
Kagan said he delayed the vote because legislators on the committee were tired and he wanted them to have a clear-headed perspective.
The handful of opponents who did testify, however, said the death penalty isn’t often imposed in Colorado, in part, because the law is so tightly written.
Several prosecutors from around the state testified that the law allows them to use it only under limited circumstances. In addition to killing someone, a convicted murderer has to have committed at least one of 17 aggravating factors, such as a murder being pre-meditated, the victim was held in a hostage situation or the death was especially heinous.
Prosecutors said it is a useful tool to use in getting first-degree murder convictions from defendants who plea bargain to life without parole because they don’t want to be put to death, the district attorneys said.
“Part of the strength of our death-penalty statute is it is well-written,” Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey told the committee. “It is well-tested. There are cases around on what it means and doesn’t mean, and that’s why I believe we should keep this law in place.”
George Brauchler, district attorney in the 18th Judicial District in Douglas and Arapahoe counties, said the bill was about politics and not policy, saying proponents’ testimony on out-of-state death-penalty cases have no relevance in Colorado.
He said it was prosecutorial discretion, not politics, that has kept Colorado’s death row to only three inmates.
Regardless, the two state legislators who introduced the bill said however often the death penalty is charged, or even imposed, isn’t the issue.
“I believe that the death penalty as applied in Colorado is unconstitutional,” said Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder.
“We must consider removing failed practices based on a number of criteria: Does the policy work as intended, is it an effective use of limited resources and is it equitable and balanced,” added Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora. “I assure you that the death penalty fails all three of these missions as a failed policy. The death penalty does not deter crimes.” Melton also said the death penalty is unfairly imposed on minorities.
He said the population of blacks in the nation is 13 percent, but the number of blacks on death row nationwide is 41 percent.
All three inmates on Colorado’s death row are black. “Not only are all three African-American, but all three are males in their 30s and from my district,” said Melton, who is black.
“The usage of the death penalty is racially biased, especially against African-Americans,” he said.
The measure, HB1264, heads to the House Appropriations Committee. Today the House Local Government Committee is to hear a related measure, HB1270, which would place the issue on next year’s ballot.