The History of the Death Penalty in Colorado

There are currently 3 people on death row in Colorado: Nathan Dunlap who was convicted of killing 4 people in an Aurora Chuckee Cheese; Sir Mario Owens who was convicted of a double homicide of a witness and his fiance who was going to testify against Robert Ray who is the third man on death row.  All three men are African American and all went to Aurora High.

Michael Radelet is a Sociology professor at CU Boulder, he has written extensively about the criminal justice system and the death penalty in Colorado and the United States at large.  He told KGNU’s Maeve Conran that there are huge regional differences in how the death penalty is applied in Colorado.

“Right now in Colorado there is really one prosecutor who is gung-ho on the death penalty and he’s from Arapahoe County so we have huge regional variations in the imposition of the death penalty.”

Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler is expected to announce his candidacy for the upcoming gubernatorial race which will likely make the issue of the death penalty a major platform in the race.

Governor Hickenlooper enacted a temporary moratorium on executions saying that there won’t be any while he is in office.

In his new book The History of the Death Penalty in Colorado, Radelet outlines the history of the death penalty in the state and efforts to repeal it. Democrats have tried three times in the last decade to repeal the death penalty. Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman will introduce another measure on Wednesday February 15th.  The proposal would impact cases for crimes committed after July 2017.  Last year one Republican joined with Democrats to defeat a bill that would have made it easier to impose the death penalty by not requiring a jury’s unanimous consent.

The State of Colorado has gone back and forth between the legalization of the death penalty.

“The biggest repeal was by the legislature in 1897, and they just totally got rid of it for everything, a lot of religious opposition, people realized the death penalty was not a deterrent, and…in those days Colorado was trying to look sophisticated. To be the most developed state between Chicago and San Francisco, and the idea of the Wild West hanging didn’t go with that image. So they abolished it.”

The death penalty has since been reinstated, abolished, and reinstated again in 1979. The state has had the death penalty ever since.

But Radelet says the sentiment relating to the death penalty is changing around the world. In 1976, sixteen countries around the world had abolished the death penalty; that number has now grown to 140.

“Even in the United States…in the last eight years, there have been seven states that have abolished the death penalty.”

He says a major “nail in the executioner’s coffin” would be Gov. Hickenlooper commuting the sentences of three men currently on death row in Colorado. That way, even if someone was sentenced to the death penalty today, it would be 25 years before they were executed, giving the state time to figure out where to go next.


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