Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed a bill to repeal the death penalty on Monday, officially getting rid of capital punishment in his state. At the time the repeal bill was passed in the state legislature, three men sat on death row. Because the language in the repeal bill did not apply to their cases, there was great speculation over whether or not the governor would commute their sentences.
On Monday, Polis also announced the commutation of their sentences. Robert Ray, Sir Mario Owens, and Nathan Dunlap will now serve life in prison without the possibility of parole, and their convictions remain unchanged. Polis explained in a statement that while commutations are usually indicative of an inmate's changed behavior, he offered clemency to remain consistent with the law.
"The decision to commute these sentences was made to reflect what is now Colorado law, and done after a thorough outreach process to the victims and their families," Polis said.
The arguments made either in favor of or against the death penalty repeal bill were largely shaped by the families of murder victims.
Two of the men previously on death row, Ray and Owens, were convicted of murdering Javad Marshall-Fields and his fiancée, Vivian Wolfe. Marshall-Fields' mother is state Sen. Rhonda Fields (D–Aurora), who remain opposed to the repeal efforts in the state legislature. State Rep. Tom Sullivan (D–Aurora), whose son was murdered in the 2012 Aurora Theater shooting, also opposed the repeal efforts. On the opposing side, families of murder victims took their stories to the Colorado Capitol to explain why they supported the repeal bill.
The reactions to the governor's actions were mixed.
On Twitter, Denise Maes, public policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, applauded Polis for commuting the death row sentences. Maes agreed with the governor's assertion that "the death penalty cannot be, and never has been, administrated equally."
"Although Republicans are not in the majority in the Colorado Legislature, they were among the prime sponsors of the bill and their support made it possible to repeal the death penalty," Hannah Cox, national manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, said in a statement. "They felt capital punishment did not align with their conservative principles of valuing limited government, fiscal conservatism, and life."
District Attorney George Brauchler accused Polis of circumventing the law. Brauchler pointed to Colorado Revised Statute 16-17-102, which states that a clemency application "shall be first submitted to the present district attorney of the district in which the applicant was convicted and to the judge who sentenced and the attorney who prosecuted at the trial of the applicant" before a governor can approve it.
Fields, too, expressed her disappointment in a series of tweets, saying Polis' action "hijacks justice and undermines our criminal justice system."
"Words can't express my [disappointment] and sense of emptiness. The system failed my son, our family and those who served as citizen jurors," she added.
The Death Penalty Information Center has tracked issues with the application of Colorado's death penalty over the years. Not only is the practice costly to taxpayers, requiring longer court proceedings than those needed for doling out life sentences, but death penalty sentences are disproportionately administered based on race and geography, with Colorado prosecutors being more likely to pursue a death sentence against a minority defendant than a white one, controlling for other factors like murder rates between racial groups and heinousness of crimes.