AP NEWS

Abolish the Death Penalty in Colorado

February 18, 2019

If the worth of a public policy is its ability to achieve policy objectives, then capital punishment is a failure. It hasn’t been shown to deter crime. It’s not cost-effective. It’s unevenly applied. It needs to be abolished.

Colorado abolished the death penalty in 1897 for four years, but subsequent repeal efforts have fallen short of success. In 2009 a repeal bill failed by just one vote in the Colorado Senate after passing in the House. Abolition advocates hope that 2019 is the year when Colorado can finally relegate capital punishment to history. There is growing public revulsion with the practice, its value to justice is increasingly dubious, and the political circumstances are as favorable to repeal as ever — abolition-leaning Democrats control the Colorado House and Senate, the state’s new attorney general, Democrat Phil Weiser, is opposed to the death penalty, and new Gov. Jared Polis, also a Democrat, has said he would sign a repeal bill.

The momentum is there. Now lawmakers must follow through.

Executions have become exceedingly rare in the state. The first execution to occur in what is now Colorado was the 1859 hanging of murderer John Stoefel at a cottonwood tree along Cherry Creek. Stoefel is one of 103 men the state has put to death. (Every person Colorado has ever executed was a male murderer.) The last execution in Colorado was that of Gary Lee Davis in 1997, and that event came 30 years after the state’s previous execution.

The death penalty in practice might in effect be dormant, but capital punishment is still on the books. As long as the death penalty remains viable law in Colorado, the state claims for itself the objectionable role of institutional executioner. And it’s no mere abstraction: Three men today sit on Colorado’s death row, and the prospect of a death sentence is an emotional and practical factor every time courts in the state take up the most heinous crimes, such as the prosecution last year of Frederick killer Christopher Watts and the Aurora theater mass murderer James Holmes.

Some argue that the death penalty deters would-be killers, but the evidence just isn’t there. “Research to date on the effect of capital punishment on homicide rates is not useful in determining whether the death penalty increases, decreases, or has no effect on these rates,” said a 2012 report from National Research Council of The National Academies . Prominent death penalty scholar Michael L. Radelet, a professor at the University of Colorado, and co-author Traci L. Lacock wrote in 2009 that 88 percent of prominent criminologists “do not believe that the death penalty is a deterrent,” and there was an “overwhelming consensus ... that the death penalty does not add deterrent effects to those already achieved by long imprisonment.” The New York City Bar Association in a 2017 presentation asserted that murder rates did not rise in states that abolished the death penalty.

Not only does the death penalty fail to deter, it’s a costly failure. In “The Death Penalty vs. Life Incarceration: A Financial Analysis,” a 2016 study published in the Susquehanna University Political Review , Colorado was shown to spend about 15 percent more on death row inmates than those in the general population. But that’s just incarceration costs. Account for the enormous legal expenses of trying death penalty cases and the outlays skyrocket. The analysis found that in the United States each death penalty inmate costs about $1.12 million more than a general population inmate.

An especially egregious defect in American death penalty cases is their susceptibility to great economic, geographic and racial disparities. A case that results in a death sentence often depends less on the underlying facts of the alleged crime than on the financial means of the defendant. Of the almost 1,400 executions that occurred in the United States between 1976 and 2015, 71 percent were carried out in the South . All manner of racial imbalances can be found in capital cases : More than three-quarters of executions stem from cases involving a white victim, yet only half of murder victims in America are white. White and black inmates make up equal shares of the death row population — 42 percent — even though the country’s population is 61 percent white and 13 percent black. All three death row inmates in Colorado — Nathan Dunlap, Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray — were prosecuted in Arapahoe County, and all three are black. The location of the county line in relation to a crime should not determine whether a defendant lives or dies, and neither should the skin color of the accused.

It is implausible to think that in the United States innocent people have not been executed. Since 1973, more than 160 death row inmates have been set free because evidence showed they were innocent. “For every 10 people who have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in the U.S., one person has been set free,” notes the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty . No executed inmate in the United States has been posthumously proved legally and factually innocent, but this is largely because the justice system has little incentive to expend resources on cases in which the defendant is dead. In 2011, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter took the extraordinary step of granting a posthumous unconditional pardon to Joe Arridy, who had been executed in 1939 for a murder in Pueblo. ”(An) overwhelming body of evidence indicates the 23-year-old Arridy was innocent, including false and coerced confessions, the likelihood that Arridy was not in Pueblo at the time of the killing, and an admission of guilt by someone else,” Ritter proclaimed.

The state-sanctioned killing of an innocent person is more morally repugnant than the execution of a guilty one could be morally just. For this reason alone — given that innocent people almost certainly die under a regime of capital punishment — Colorado should abolish the death penalty. But the reasons are many. Colorado is among the 30 states that still permit capital punishment. Legislators this year should withdraw the state from that ignoble club.

Quentin Young, for the editorial board, quentin@dailycamera.com , @qpyoungnews.