Death penalty elimination dropped from bill

A measure that would continue the death penalty in Colorado while pumping new money into cold murder cases gathered support on Monday.

A deal reached between party leaders in the Senate called for a death-penalty repeal provision to be dropped and new filing fees to be devoted to investigating cold cases.

Sen. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, agreed to the change in House Bill 1274, Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry said.

“It was a no-brainer from my perspective,” said Penry, R-Grand Junction.

The Grand Junction Police Department’s arrest last month of a man in the 34-year-old double murder of Linda and Kelley Benson was part of the discussion, Penry said. The arrest of Jerry Louis Nemnich in the Benson killings followed an investigation that was helped by retired officers who had seen the case go cold.

Colorado has executed only one person in the past 42 years, Gary Lee Davis in 1997. Two men are on death row, but the original bill wouldn’t have changed their sentences.

A group of families of murder victims whose cases remain unsolved are the main force behind the bill. They have the support of the Colorado Catholic Conference and the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Colorado District Attorneys Council is fighting the bill, along with other victims’ groups.

Debra Callihan, whose cousin Sid Wells was killed in 1983, said the families of murder victims have been told for too long that there’s not enough resources to solve these old cases. She said they’re willing to give up what she called the “ultimate retribution” for a chance to find their loved one’s killer.

“If we can come to that conclusion, we feel like it should be a no-brainer for someone who hasn’t lost someone,” said Callihan. She’s the wife of former Lt. Gov. Mike Callihan and has been lobbying lawmakers on the bill as a member of Families of Homicide Victims & Missing Persons.

But Ted Tow, executive director of the DA’s Council, said another bill requiring that anyone arrested for a felony submit a DNA sample would solve more cold cases than abolishing the death penalty because it would expand the state’s criminal database. Tow said cold cases are solved through advances in technology and finding people willing to talk.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, bills to abolish the death penalty have stalled in Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire and Texas this year

New Mexico this year became the second state to abolish the death penalty since the U.S.
Supreme Court ruled states could reinstate it in 1976. New Jersey got rid of the death penalty in 2007.


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