Death Penalty Repeal Fails in Colorado

Resource type: News

The New York Times |

by KIRK JOHNSON

DENVER — An effort to repeal Colorado’s death penalty law stumbled Monday in the State Senate after two hours of sometimes anguished and angry debate, leaving the bill in limbo and supporters scrambling to find votes as the end of the session looms this week.

The Colorado House voted in support of repeal, by a single vote majority, last month.

In their debate, lawmakers focused on questions of deterrence, certainty or doubt in the age of genetic evidence, and, far from least in the mix, money in a time of shrinking government resources.

As proposed, the bill would have redirected about $1 million now devoted to death penalty costs to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation for investigating unsolved crimes known as cold cases. But the amendment that passed on a voice vote Monday pledged new money for cold cases — popular with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle — but made no mention of the death penalty. Democrats control both chambers of the General Assembly.

“They got what they wanted, and we got left behind,” said Bradley A. Wood, the director of Lutheran Advocacy Ministry — Colorado, which supported repeal.

Questions of justice resonated from both sides.

Senator Morgan Carroll, a Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill, said more money for cold-case work would mean more killers brought to justice. “Justice at least means: find the person who did it,” Ms. Carroll said.

She also said the costs of making a mistake when imposing the ultimate sanction were too high. “In a democracy,” she said, “the decisions of the state come with blood on all of our hands in the event that we are wrong.”

Senator Shawn Mitchell, a Republican, responded that life was imperfect and that some heinous crime must be set apart with greater sanctions, including the death penalty. “It is the closest we can come to justice,” Mr. Mitchell said. “Not complete justice, it’s just the closest we can get.”

Contrary to the myths and legends of rough justice, most of the West — with the major exception of California — did not race back to imposing the death penalty after 1976, when the United States Supreme Court allowed states to resume the practice.

Colorado, Montana and Wyoming each have only two inmates on death row, as did New Mexico when it repealed its death penalty law in March, according to the DeathPenaltyInformationCenter, a Washington-based research group that opposes capital punishment. Colorado has executed only one person since 1976.

The Colorado repeal bill was very much in keeping with what has become a national debate about the financial costs of the death penalty, especially as the recession hits state budgets hard.

For example, the Republican sponsor of a death penalty repeal proposal in Kansas specifically cited cost-benefit analysis in tough times as a reason for rethinking capital punishment. The bill cleared a legislative committee and was sent back for more study, ending its chances of passage this year.

Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, a Democrat, also mentioned cost as part of his reason for signing a repeal measure.

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Issues:

Death Penalty, Human Rights & Reconciliation

Global Impact:

United States