Boulder DA in Support of Latest Bill Calling for Repeal of Death Penalty
Boulder District Attorney Michael Dougherty said he supports the latest effort by legislators to try and repeal the death penalty in Colorado .
Senate Bill 19-182 was introduced Monday and will get its first hearing today, the sixth time in the past two decades legislators have tried to get Colorado to become the 21st state to outlaw the death penalty.
Dougherty, who has been the Boulder County district attorney for about a year now, spoke to legislators on Monday in support of the bill.
“I’m strongly opposed to the death penalty, and it should be abolished in Colorado,” Dougherty said. “I don’t believe any state or country should put its citizens to death.”
Dougherty said he has opposed the death penalty since he started his law career in 1995 as an intern at a state public defender’s office.
“Much has happened in my career since then,” Dougherty said. “My opposition to the death penalty has remained the same.”
As the top prosecutor in the county, Dougherty said he has not made his stance on capital punishment secret, and has yet to pursue a death penalty case during his time as Boulder DA. Dougherty’s predecessor, Stan Garnett, was also a n outspoken critic of the death penalty and never pursued it in any of the eligible cases his office prosecuted.
In addition to his moral concerns about the government sentencing a person to death and possible wrongful convictions, Dougherty said he has concerns about the practical hurdles involved in pursuing the death penalty, including the time, resources and appeals involved.
Dougherty also said he has not seen any convincing data proving the death penalty serves as a more significant deterrent than life in prison. He also pointed out even if he were to pursue the death penalty in an eligible case, the final decision would still be up to a jury.
“I talk to victims’ families about it, and one of the things we always focus on in these conversations, is it is up to the jury to decide on a sentence, and a Boulder jury would have to reach a unanimous verdict finding the death penalty sentence is morally just,” Dougherty said. “As Boulder district attorney, I will not simply ignore the law that allows for use of the death penalty, but I must weigh a prosecutor’s ethical obligation to only pursue charges that can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
“I don’t believe a Boulder jury would reach a unanimous verdict finding a death sentence is justified.”
While efforts to repeal the death penalty have been unsuccessful numerous times in the past, lawmakers have expressed optimism a Democrat-controlled Legislature and a new governor will make the difference this time around.
If the bill is enacted, it would go into effect immediately, with no vote by residents.
“There are people out there who think it should be referred to the voters,” bill sponsor Sen. Angela Williams, D-Denver, said, “but I believe that we are elected to represent the people and there are times on tough issues like this that they expect us to move our state forward.”
There are currently three men on death row in Colorado, but the state has not executed anyone in more than 20 years.
But even though many prosecutors have decided on their own not to pursue the death penalty, Dougherty said he still believes it should be taken off the books. For one, Dougherty said having the mere prospect of the death penalty hanging over defendants could result in guilty pleas regardless of actual guilt to avoid trial and the possibility of execution.
“I have significant ethical concerns if people were ever to use the death penalty to motivate a guilty plea to a lesser sentence,” Dougherty said. “I would never want any prosecutor to say that a defendant has to accept life without parole in order to avoid the death penalty.”
But Dougherty also said he thinks repealing the death penalty would reflect the values of Colorado residents, who he thinks are more aware than ever of the possibility or wrongful convictions.
“I believe the laws reflect who we are as a society, and should reflect what we believe is appropriate and acceptable,” Dougherty said. “Personally, I don’t believe the death penalty is, and I don’t think the laws should reflect we accept the government should see to execute individuals.”
The Denver Post contributed to this report.
Mitchell Byars: 303-473-1329, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/mitchellbyars