Death Penalty

Colorado Officially Repeals the Death Penalty, Commutes Sentences of Death Row Inmates

The reactions to the governor's actions were mixed.


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.

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  1. Send them to gen. pop. and let the virus get them.

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  2. Great. So I get to spend the rest of my life paying for three meals a day, a cozy bed and all the “girlfriends” they can molest.

    1. Any idea how much you spend on death row special housing, security/admin and endless appeals?

      1. So the only alternative to life sentences is life on death row with unlimited appeals? Nothing else comes to mind?

        1. I didn’t realize you were looking for answers vs bitching.

          Besides. I’ve worked with local Sheriff offices on procurement software and there is nothing “cozy” about a $30 mattress or $5 pillow. Especially as these lifers get older.

          1. You’re correct but it’s not as clear as one might think. Nationally, the average annual cost for a state prisoner ranges between $22,000 and $33,000. Assuming $25,000 and a life sentence averaging 30 years, the total cost would be $750,000. Death sentences cost taxpayers $1.2 million. I support the death penalty because incarceration provides no guarantee.

        2. Do you prefer to give the government swift execution powers? Does that seem likely to end well?

      2. I’ll kill them for free. I’ll even bring my own meat cleaver.

        I need the quickenings.

    2. Yes, but the Democratic Governor isn’t worried about your ability to pay–just his power to force you to in violation of the Thirteenth Amendment. Robert Dear, God’s Own warrior for the babies, for instance, couldn’t be quartered in your home because of the 3rd Amendment. So the seizures banned by 4A will cover room and board. Fortunately the Federal government is out to hang Robert Dear, so not even Dem Governor can save that one.

      1. Amendment XIII Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

        I tried and cannot construct any logical construct as to how what Polis did violates the words I just posted above.
        How goes your reasoning?

        1. It’s an argument against prison labor. Doesn’t violate the 13th as written, but it is a bit concerning when critical government functions rely on what is essentially slave labor by inmates. The system can be abused, but it’s hardly the worst aspect of our prison system, and there are regulations in place to prevent it from being abused.

    3. Do you trust govt. to use coercive force, but not private citizens? Do you vote to show your support? Then your double standard means you have had your say and now must be ruled, must pay and obey.

  3. The victims were targeted because Mr. Marshall-Fields (what a name) was a witness to a prior murder committed by one of the killers. So Colorado is sparing guys involved in the ultimate in witness tampering.

    Good job, counsel. You got to delay the proceedings long enough to get your client off Death Row.

  4. there are absolutely crimes for which i have no problem putting someone to death…in fact my list is probably longer than average

    that being said, the state has proven time and time again it is far too inept and/or corrupt to be trusted with that power.

    At this point, death penalty should be limited to public crimes where its literally 100.00% impossible that the accused is innocent.

    1. That’s basically my stance on it too, I’m fine with the death penalty but I think it’s overused in the current system. Too many cases where DNA evidence exonerates someone after their death.

      In heinous crimes where we 100% know who did it (DC sniper comes to mind), I have no trouble with executing the criminal.

      1. yeah i was thinking that freak from the Aurora shooting.

        1. Right, we know they’re guilty and we know we’d never trust them in polite society ever again, so what are we doing keeping them alive?

          It also strikes down the notion that our prison system is meant as a rehabilitation process. If we’re pretending that we’re rehabilitating people, why do life without parole sentences exist? We admitted we weren’t rehabilitating them or we’d give them a chance at getting out one day.

      2. The death penalty for rampaging murderers KNOWN, not supposed, to be guilty (white, black, fascist or communist) is way preferable to billing me for their free lunch and board. Then again, the Texas State House was built entirely by convict labor, so chain gang products are known to have made the world a worse place in that particular case.

    2. I agree. In my opinion, there is nothing morally wrong with the idea of the death penalty but there is also no practical reason to trust any existing government to exercise that power properly.

    3. There’s a law in one of the states that has the death penalty that it can only be applied in cases where there’s video evidence of the crime. I’m afraid I can’t recall which one. But the idea is basically the same as yours. However, unless the death penalty is automatically applied in all cases where that’s true, there’s still room for inequality in the application of the penalty.

  5. This should be a good message to the Libertarian Pratfall Committee. If Polis State Governor is tarred-and-feathered next election we’ll know just how attractive the LP Vigilante Executions plank is as a replacement for stinging up murderers or enslaving the public to provide robber-killers Free Lunch for life as their reward. The 13th Amendment, on the other hand, makes it clear a chain gang is neither cruel nor unusual as far as the Constitution is concerned.

  6. It’s moral for a citizen to pronounce death on the spot in defense. That’s not so when an immoral political system, e.g., one based on violence/fraud, not reason, rights, choice, kills. DNA has shown govt. has executed 100s of innocent victims, yet not once the individuals responsible paid with their lives, or were even charged or punished.
    This is institutionalized injustice.

  7. NOT in favor of the death penalty.. gov gets to many things wrong…glad they struck down the death penalty… should be done in all states

  8. “the death penalty cannot be, and never has been, administrated equally.”

    Criminal punishment is almost never administered equally.

    The Reason the death penalty should go away is because it is too easy (painless) on the guilty and too hard on the innocent, such as (possibly) Cameron Todd Willingham. It also buries some of the truth forever, eliminating the possibility of death-bed confessions for other crimes the accused may have committed.

    Frankly, I’m in favor of no-human-contact isolation chambers in prisons with no books, TV, etc. It’s been ruled cruel and unusual punishment but what is more cruel? Twenty years for armed robbery in a regular prison – or two years in an isolation chamber?

  9. Any judge that imposes the death penalty, shall be subject to it if the defendant is found factually innocent on appeal?

    1. That’s a great way to ensure there will never be a finding of actual innocence in that jurisdiction ever again.

    2. In Chinese history (209 BC), the Dazexiang Uprising was started by a group of soldiers who were delayed by a storm. The penalty for being late was death. The penalty for rebellion was death. Therefore, the soldiers started a rebellion that lasted a full year before the imperial army put them down.

      If you make the penalty for messing up too hard, you have severe negative consequences.

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  11. Although they are finally protecting convicted murderer’s from death it is good news that the governor still supports the murder of innocent babies.

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