Colorado becomes latest state to repeal death penalty

Death penalty Credit California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Wikipedia CC 20 CNA California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0).

The Catholic bishops of Colorado have welcomed the repeal of the death penalty, as the state becomes the 22nd to repeal capital punishment.

"For many years, the Colorado Catholic Conference has supported efforts to repeal the death penalty, and we are grateful for the determination and commitment it took for the state legislature to pass this bill," the Colorado Catholic Conference said March 23.

"We believe that human life is sacred from conception until natural death," said the Catholic conference, which represents the four bishops and three dioceses of Colorado. "We believe that, because God made us in his image and likeness, it is not possible to lose the dignity that confers to our lives. We are, as Jesus said, his brothers and sisters, even if we have committed great crimes or sins."

Democratic Gov. Jared Polis signed the bill into law March 23. The legislation passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 38-27, and the State Senate by a vote of 19 to 13.

"We thank Gov. Jared Polis for signing this historic piece of legislation, and we commend the many state senators and representatives who worked hard to make this important change to our state law," the Catholic conference said.

While the bill had strong Democratic support and both chambers of the legislature are Democrat-controlled, some legislators broke with their party majorities. Republican State Sens. Kevin Priola, Jack Tate, and Owen Hill, co-sponsored the bill and voted in favor. Democratic Sens. Rhonda Fields and Jessie Danielson voted against it.

Tate said he thought the death penalty is ineffective and expensive and risks "executing an innocent person." Priola cited the principle of "protecting life from conception to natural death," Colorado Public Radio reported.

Colorado legislators failed to repeal the death penalty five times since 2000. There had not been an execution under Colorado law since 1997.

The Catholic bishops of Colorado had backed the repeal effort.

With Colorado, there are now 22 U.S. states and the District of Columbia that have abolished the death penalty. The governors of California, Oregon, and Pennsylvania have placed moratoria on executions, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said there is a trend against the death penalty, especially in the western U.S.

"Public support for capital punishment has been thinning and is near a generation low. America's views of criminal justice have experienced a sea change and in state legislatures, the issue has become increasingly bipartisan," he said March 23. "And as legislators have shifted from viewing the death penalty as an instrument of politics and have increasingly subjected it to the same type of scrutiny afforded other government programs, we have seen significant legislative movement towards abolition across the country."

"Growing numbers of legislators have criticized the high cost of capital punishment, the inherent risk of convicting and executing the innocent, the continuing racial, geographic, and economic disparities in the way it is applied, and the untrustworthiness of states to carry it out fairly, consistently, or in a principled manner," said Dunham.

Polis also commuted the sentences of three inmates on death row.

"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," Polis said.

"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," he said.

The inmates on Colorado's death row were Nathan Dunlap, who murdered four people at a children's restaurant, and Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray, who both had been involved in the murder of a young engaged couple, Javan Marshall Fields and Vivian Wolfe. Fields was set to testify against Ray in court on charges Ray was an accomplice in a murder case.

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The murders of Fields and Wolfe helped inspire Fields' mother, Aurora Democratic Sen. Rhonda Fields, to become active in public life. Fields was one of the strongest critics of the bill in 2019, objecting to the speed with which it passed through committee consideration.

She was critical in Jan. 30 debate on the bill, saying it was unjust to give all murderers the same sentence.

"We're saying that you if you kill one person, two persons, three people - it could be another Sandy Hook, it could be another club shooting, a concert shooting, a theater shooting, whatever it is - you can shoot as many people as you can, everybody gets the same penalty," she said, according to the Colorado Sun. "And the penalty is life in (prison) without the possibility of parole."

Some Republican critics of the bill wanted death penalty repeal to be put before Colorado voters in a ballot initiative.

The Colorado legislation bars the death penalty for defendants charged on or after July 1, 2020.

Pending death penalty cases and potential death penalty cases in Colorado include the case of self-confessed Planned Parenthood shooter Robert Lewis Dear, Jr. Such cases could continue.

Both Pope Francis and his immediate predecessors have condemned the practice of capital punishment in the West.

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The Colorado Catholic Conference cited the 1995 Catechism of the Catholic Church, approved by St. John Paul II. While the death penalty was considered necessary to protect society from violent criminals, under advanced prison systems the circumstances where the death penalty is necessary are "very rare, if not practically non-existent."

Pope Francis then changed the Catechism to read that the death penalty is "inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person." He said that the Church "works with determination for its abolition worldwide."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has voted to change the Catechism for use by adults in the U.S. to follow Pope Francis, the Colorado Catholic Conference said.

The Catholic conference also stressed the need to remember those affected by crime, saying "while today we applaud the repeal of the death penalty, we must never forget about the victims of these horrendous crimes, and as a community we must continue to support their families and loved ones," the conference said. "May they find comfort, healing and forgiveness in the love of Jesus Christ."