By Amber Widgery
Colorado became the 22nd state to abolish capital punishment when Governor Jared Polis (D) signed SB 100 yesterday.
The legislative repeal only addresses new capital cases. The fate of Colorado’s three death row prisoners remained in the hands of Polis, who announced commutations for each.
“Commutations are typically granted to reflect evidence of extraordinary change in the offender. That is not why I am commuting these sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Rather, the commutations of these despicable and guilty individuals are consistent with the abolition of the death penalty in the state of Colorado, and consistent with the recognition that the death penalty cannot be, and never has been, administered equitably in the state of Colorado," Polis said.
Pending capital cases in the state, including those against Planned Parenthood shooter Robert Lewis Dear Jr. and Dreion Dearing, who is accused of killing an Adams County sheriff’s deputy, remain unaffected with the repeal taking effect only on cases charged after July 1, 2020.
SB 100 was the sixth attempt to repeal capital punishment in Colorado in recent years and passed not along party lines, but with limited bipartisan support. The bill passed the Democratic-led House despite opposition from Democrats and passed the Democratic-led Senate with Republican support.
Some Colorado legislators have been directly affected by capital punishment in Colorado, making the debate and vote a deeply personal, not partisan, issue.
Senator Rhonda Fields was one of the Democrats to oppose the bill. She initially ran for office after the murder of her son and his fiancée. Two of the men commuted by Polis were responsible for the murders.
Fields told the Colorado Sun, “It’s just hard for me to describe how I’m feeling. I feel like justice was just hijacked after years and years of court proceedings. Here we are with the stroke of a pen the governor just sweeps it away.”
Representative Tom Sullivan was also a Democratic opponent to the bill in the House. His son was murdered in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting, a case where jurors declined to impose capital punishment.
The Colorado Legislature abolished capital punishment once previously in 1897. The penalty was reintroduced in response to several mob lynchings. Just four years later in 1901, the legislature reenacted a capital punishment law. Colorado has only held one execution following the 1972 U.S. Supreme Court case striking down all death penalty laws in the United States and the subsequent reenactment of the law.
Amber Widgery is a program principal in NCSL’s Criminal Justice Program.