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Colorado lawmakers consider ending little-used death penalty

Senate Bill 19-182 would repeal the death penalty for offenses charged on July 1, 2019 or after.

DENVER — Democrats who control Colorado's Legislature acted quickly on a bill to repeal the state's little-used death penalty, with the Senate Judiciary Committee advancing the legislation just two days after it was introduced.

The committee voted 3-2 on party lines after hours of public testimony Wednesday to send the bill to the full Senate for debate.

PREVIOUS | Colorado Dems announce legislation that would repeal the death penalty

Colorado's death penalty was reinstituted in 1974 by popular vote. Sixty-one percent of Coloradans - over 450,000 people - voted to reinstitute capital punishment.

Colorado has killed 103 people. According to Michael Radelet, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado, the last time the state killed anyone was in Cañon City in 1997.

FULL TEXT | Colorado Senate Bill 19-182

There are currently three inmates on death row in the state - Nathan Dunlap, who killed four people at a Chuck E. Cheese (previous Gov. John Hickenlooper stayed his death and decided to leave it up to his replacement - Gov. Jared Polis has made no moves to expedite his execution), Sir Mario Owens murdered a young couple (both witnesses in another murder trial involving Owens) and Robert Ray, who ordered the hit on Owens' witnesses. Owens was denied a new trial after his lawyers requested one in 2017.

RELATED | Gov. Jared Polis weighs in on the death penalty

Proponents argued the death penalty doesn't deter violent crime and affects people of color disproportionately. Repeal opponents urged lawmakers to refer the issue to voters, and some crime victims admonished bill sponsors for not reaching out to them before introducing the bill.

Its speedy consideration followed a contentious Democrat-led proposal this week to overhaul oil and gas regulations to give local governments more authority over industry operations. Republicans and energy industry executives have demanded time to study its content.

Denver Sen. Angela Williams, a sponsor of the death penalty repeal measure , noted that all three people facing execution in Colorado are African American — evidence, she said, of racial inequities in the criminal justice system. She also pointed to the difficulty of getting death penalty convictions and the cost in pursuing them.

"It's a barbaric practice. It's time to remove it from the books in Colorado," Williams said.

Lawmakers have tried before to repeal Colorado's death penalty, which was last applied in 1997. Gary Lee Davis died by lethal injection for the 1986 kidnapping, rape and murder of a neighbor, Virginia May.

Marshall-Fields was the son of Rhonda Fields, now a Democratic senator who has vocally supported the death penalty. Fields' daughter and Marshall-Fields' sister, Maisha Fields, said Wednesday her mother was stunned to hear about the bill. Williams said she informed Fields about her intent to bring the bill last fall.

"We have real pain, and our trauma is not for sale for your political gain," Maisha Fields told the bill's supporters.

Bobby Stephens, who was shot in the face by Dunlap in the restaurant attack, said he, too, was surprised by the bill's quick introduction. He said voters should decide.

"Nobody has reached out to the victims in these cases," Stephens said. "This decision is so important that it goes beyond any of us in this room."

First-term Democratic Rep. Tom Sullivan, whose son, Alex, was killed in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting, also has supported the death penalty. Theater shooter James Holmes is serving a life sentence.

The prosecutor in that case, Arapahoe District Attorney George Brauchler, and several fellow district attorneys said voters should decide whether to repeal. Denver District Attorney Beth McCann argued for the bill.

"For me it is a moral issue," McCann said. "I do not believe the state should be in the business of killing people."

A proposal to repeal the death penalty this year in neighboring Wyoming's Republican-controlled Legislature drew far more support from lawmakers there than ever before. Lawmakers cited cost and argued it may not deter violent crime. Wyoming's House passed death-penalty repeal but it failed in the Senate.

There are two current death penalty cases moving their way through the Colorado criminal court as of Tuesday. The first, in El Paso County, sees the district attorney seeking the death penalty for Marco Garcia-Braco, accused of having a hand in killing two Coronado High School students.

RELATED | DA to seek death penalty for man accused of killing Adams County deputy

The second case, in Adams County, has prosecutors seeking the death penalty for Dreion Dearing, the accused killer of Adams County Deputy Heath Gumm.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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