Death Penalty

The Fight Over Colorado's Death Penalty Was Shaped by the Families of Murder Victims

Concern for the families appeared on both sides of the debate.


The Colorado House of Representatives passed a bill last week that would end the death penalty in the state. The legislation is now headed to Gov. Jared Polis' desk, where he is expected to sign it. The bill will not directly affect the cases of the three men currently on death row in Colorado, but the governor has indicated that if the bill becomes law he would seriously consider commuting their sentences to life in prison.

Two of the men on death row, Robert Ray and Sir Mario Owens, were convicted and sentenced for murdering Javad Marshall-Fields and his fiancée, Vivian Wolfe. State Sen. Rhonda Fields (D–Aurora) is Marshall-Fields' mother, and she is one of the few Democrats in the Senate who has remained opposed to a repeal. Indeed, her strong opposition sank a previous repeal effort and has encouraged other politicians to oppose repeal.

State Rep. Tom Sullivan (D–Aurora) has led a similar opposition effort in the House. Sullivan's son was killed in the 2012 Aurora Theater shooting. Though shooter James Holmes was eventually sentenced to life in prison, Sullivan maintained that he would continue fighting for the death penalty in the state.

But the families of murder victims have not all come down on the same side of the issue. Some have spoken up in favor of the bill. The American Civil Liberties Union released a video earlier this year featuring Coloradans who opposed the death penalty despite losing a loved one to murder. Some of these testimonies were taken to the state Capitol: Sharletta Evans, whose 3-year-old son was murdered, and Victoria Baker-Willford, whose mother was murdered, told lawmakers why they were opposed to the death penalty despite these tragedies. Some have religious objections, while others said the death penalty would just bring further trauma.

Now that the repeal bill has passed, advocates have had a chance to reflect on the fight.

"While Republicans are not in the majority in the Colorado Legislature, they are among the prime sponsors of the bill, and their support has made it possible to repeal the death penalty," says Hannah Cox, national manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. "They are backed by a wide coalition of faith leaders, murder victims' family members, former members of corrections, and yes, grassroots conservatives, all who feel it is far past time for this antiquated system to be left in the history books."

"167 innocent people have been officially exonerated from death row since 1973," adds Cassandra Stubbs, director of the Capital Punishment Project at the ACLU. "There is no excuse for any government that respects justice, fairness, and human dignity to continue to execute its people."