Our Story Happens Here
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Long Debate Punctuates First Committee Hearing On Death Penalty Repeal

Bente Birkeland

An especially personal issue for some lawmakers, a bill to repeal the death penalty in Colorado got its first committee hearing at the capitol Tuesday. After a long debate the committee delayed a vote on the measure.

Lawmakers on the house judiciary committee heard hours of testimony as relatives of murdered loved ones told their stories. Robert Autobee’s son was a correctional officer who was killed in Limon a decade ago. Autobee fought for years to get the death penalty for his son’s murderer but says the process became a nightmare and took a huge emotional toll.

“Last year I lost my faith completely,” he said. “That’s what this is done to me. Two wrongs do not make a right. We simply can’t afford a death penalty.”

The bill's sponsor says the death penalty is a failed policy that raises a whole host of concerns.

“The risk of executing an innocent person, the arbitrariness of using the death penalty in Colorado, and the amount of power that is vested in one election official, the cost to the system compared to the benefit,” said Claire Levy (D-Boulder).

Opponents say having the death penalty on the books doesn’t deter crime, that capitol punishment costs millions of dollars for appeals and fails to bring closure to families. Randy Steidl was sentenced to death in Illinois in the 1980s and eventually exonerated after spending more than a decade on death row. He says death started to look good and life in prison would’ve been a worse sentence.

“It was an early release. I know it’s rare to hear somebody talk like that,” Steidl said. “Had they rolled that gurney by my cage I would’ve strapped myself on it.”

"This is not a decision that should just rest in the hands of the few that are here."

Colorado has executed one person since the death penalty was reinstated in the late 1970s. Currently three people sit on death row, including Nathan Dunlap, who is out of appeals. He’s set to be executed soon unless he gets clemency from the Governor. The bill to repeal the death penalty would not be retroactive and would only apply to crimes committed after July 1st 2013. Republican representative Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs says it’s naïve to think it wouldn’t impact Dunlap's case.

“We would kid ourselves to say if this bill were to pass that it would not have an influence on crimes for those that are awaiting execution. It would be unrealistic and disingenuous that it’s not going to affect that,” he said. 

There’s also the ongoing case against James Holmes for last summer's Aurora Theater Shooting. Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler will announce whether his office will seek the death penalty on April 1st. He testified against the bill.

“If you take away the right to use it in the rarest of cases. There’s no extra penalty for a repeat offender, no extra penalty for the number of victims you have, no extra penalty for the amount of heinousness,” said Brauchler.

To add another twist to the debate, the two other men on death row are there for murdering the son of state representative Rhonda Fields (D-Aurora). Fields supports the death penalty and has introduced a bill to send the question of repeal to voters. Her daughter Maisha Fields Pollard gave lawmakers a passionate plea to keep the death penalty.

“The death penalty is not a failed attempt. It rendered justice,” she said. “Each life is sacred. Each life deserves an opportunity to receive a punishment that is worthy. This is not a decision that should just rest in the hands of the few that are here.”

She also criticized Democrats for rushing the bill. It was introduced late Friday night, and the hearing was announced on Monday.

“To introduce a bill like this, less than 36 hours ago is insensitive.”

The last time Democrats tried to eliminate the death penalty four years ago they came up one vote short. Representative Ed Vigil (D-Alamosa) was the key swing vote in the house and kept the bill alive in that chamber. He was torn because as a one-time district attorney investigator he once used the death penalty as a threat to solve a homicide, but he also thinks it’s too expensive to prosecute.

“Over the years it’s been a learning experience and you do learn you can change your opinions and feel really good about them. It’s definitely going to be a challenging debate,” he said.

Privately some Democrats worry the party is trying to accomplish too much this session. The legislature has already had bitter fights about gun control, and passed controversial bills to allow civil unions and in-state tuition for undocumented students. Up next is the budget debate and a slew of anti-fracking bills.

Governor John Hickenlooper has not said whether he would sign a measure to repeal the death penalty. He’s previously said it’s an issue he struggles with.

Related Content