Colorado seeks to repeal the death penalty

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Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty (Photo from Boulder County DA Facebook)

The death penalty was reintroduced to Colorado in the mid-1970s. Now some lawmakers are seeking to have it repealed.

A bill to repeal the death penalty, Senate Bill 182, was introduced on March 4. There have been other attempts to repeal the death penalty, most recently when John Hickenlooper was governor. If this bill passes, Colorado would join four other states in repealing the death penalty. Those states are New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut, and Maryland.

Why now? Boulder district attorney Michael Dougherty says that people are more in tune with the factors that affect acceptance of the death penalty. Wrongful convictions are a possibility because the justice system isn’t always perfect. If a person is wrongfully convicted and put to death, you can’t reverse course. In addition, Dougherty says that people are more aware of the discriminatory nature of how the death penalty is applied nationwide. He worked with the DNA Justice Review Project before coming to Boulder. The Boulder District Attorney’s office started a Conviction Integrity Unit that enables prosecutors to find and correct wrongful convictions. From 1989-2015, 116 people were exonerated from death row. Another factor according to Dougherty is that people are more aware of the time, energy, and resources that are put into trying a death penalty case. It isn’t only the financial cost of the trial, but the emotional trial as well. To date, there is no data demonstrating that the death penalty acts as a deterrent. The murder rate in Colorado has fluctuated up and down since the reinstatement of the death penalty in the mid-1970s.

The US Supreme Court has incrementally abolished the death penalty in certain cases. In 2002, it was abolished for the mentally disabled. In 2005, the death penalty was abolished for juveniles, and in 2008 it was abolished for sex offenders.

The question Dougherty has is whether it is right for a government to have the power to kill its own people. His answer is a resounding “no.” He has always been up front about his viewpoint, although he respects differing opinions. Still, Dougherty says he can’t ignore the law that allows for the death penalty. He stresses that murder cases are the most important cases to the district attorney’s office. Even sentencing someone to life without the possibility of parole is a decision that is carefully weighed in order to ensure that the punishment fits the crime and that victims get justice. In deciding whether to try a death penalty case, Dougherty says that he must also consider whether jurors in Boulder County would be likely to reach a decision that the death penalty is morally justified. Normally, sentencing is up to the judge, but in death penalty cases it is up to the jurors. There has never been a verdict for the death penalty in Boulder County.

First, the bill has to pass the Senate which is likely to be its toughest battle because the majority is smaller in the Senate than in the House. If the bill passes the Senate, it will move on to the House, and from there to the governor. Governor Polis has already indicated he will sign the bill if it passes both the Senate and the House. A decision on the bill is expected around mid-April from the Senate. In the meantime, Dougherty and other district attorneys must continue to prosecute murder cases. The hearings are being live-streamed on the internet. You can listen to them here.

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