DENVER – Two Colorado juries have rejected the death penalty for mass murderers in a single month. Add to that the governor’s controversial decision to grant clemency to the last killer who was supposed to be executed, and it begs a question: Will Colorado ever use the death penalty again?
Jurors in Arapahoe County, the only Colorado County that currently has killers awaiting the death penalty, could not unanimously agree to sentence the Aurora movie theater gunman to die by lethal injection. Instead, the man who killed 12 people and wounded 70 others during a movie premiere was sentenced to 12 lifetimes in prison plus 3,318 years — one of the longest prison terms in history.
Just days later, a Denver County jury decided that mitigating factors were sufficient to stop the process in pursuit of the death penalty for the man who stabbed five people to death in a bar that was subsequently set on fire. The mitigating factors included an abusive childhood.
“The question everybody is asking is if these cases didn’t justify handing out the death penalty, executing somebody, what case could possible merit that?” said former Douglas County judge Jim Miller.
Miller says concerns ranging from the cost of trying a death penalty case to morality are fueling opposition.
“I think a combination of those factors make it very unlikely that you’ll anyone executed in Colorado again,” said Miller.
Yet, just last month, a poll found Colorado voters wanted death, two-to-one, in the theater shooting case.
“I think it’s worth a conversation, but the idea that Coloradans have moved on from the death penalty is not accurate,” said Arapahoe district attorney George Brauchler, who prosecuted the theater shooting case.
Under Colorado law, juries must unanimously agree to impose death sentences. In the theater case, one juror was steadfast against the death penalty and at least one juror sided with Lewis’ defense team’s presentation of mitigating factors.
The Colorado legislature last tried to repeal the death penalty in 2013. Supporters of repeal argued that the death penalty is applied unfairly and arbitrarily. But the bill died in committee as Democratic lawmakers wavered on doing away with capital punishment. Governor Hickenlooper, a fellow Democrat, had signaled he might veto the bill. His office had issued a statement saying, “the governor has conflicting feelings about the death penalty. Those feelings are still unresolved.”
Death penalty facts:
- No Denver jury has sentenced someone to death since 1986.
- Colorado has not executed anyone since 1997.
- State law requires the Colorado Supreme Court to review all death sentences and defense appeals typically last more than a decade. Afterward, the court that oversaw the case must issue a death warrant indicating the week in which the lethal injection would occur.
- Colorado law dictates that the death penalty can only be carried out by means of a “continuous intravenous injection of a lethal quantity of sodium thiopental or other equally or more effective substance.”
Three other convicted killers are currently awaiting executions in Colorado, but they were all sentenced between 5 and 20 years ago.
Sir Mario Owens: A jury sentenced Sir Mario Owens to death on June 16, 2008 for the 2005 ambush murders of Vivian Wolfe and her fiance, Javad Marshall-Fields, who were gunned down in their car at an Aurora intersection. Javad Marshall-Fields was scheduled to testify against Owens’ friend Robert Ray.
Robert Ray: A jury sentenced Robert Ray, a 23-year-old drug dealer, to death on June 8, 2009, for planned and ordering the killings of Javad Marshall-Fields and his fiancée Vivian Wolfe.
Nathan Dunlap: He was sentenced to death in 1996 for shooting to death four employees at an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant in 1993. In May 2013, Dunlap was three months from a scheduled execution when Gov. John Hickenlooper granted him a controversial “temporary reprieve.” In a move that outraged Dunlap’s victims, the governor said, “Colorado’s system of capital punishment is imperfect and inherently inequitable.” While it’s unlikely that Hickenlooper will reconsider executing Dunlap, a future governor could agree to carry out the execution.
Source: 7News Denver, Marc Stewart, Phil Tenser, Alan Gathright, August 28, 2015