Colorado abolishes the death penalty

David K. Li

Colorado abolished the death penalty Monday, making it the 22nd state to do away with capital punishment since it was reinstated in 1976.

Gov. Jared Polis signed the bill banning the ultimate punishment, SB20-100, and commuted the death sentences of three "despicable and guilty individuals" in hopes of "moving forward."

“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 in a prepared statement.

"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."

The actions by Polis means that now-former death row inmates Robert Ray, Sir Mario Owens and Nathan Dunlap will spend the rest of their lives behind bars without the possibility of parole.

Ray was convicted of arranging the 2005 murders of two witnesses to another murder. Those slain witnesses were Javad Marshall-Fields, 22, the son of state Sen. Rhonda Fields, and his fiancee.

Polis commuted "capital punishment sentences of those who killed my son and bride to be," Fields said in statement. "In a stroke of a pen Gov. Polis hijacks justice and undermines our criminal justice system."

The governor said he knows his decision won't be popular among all Coloradans.

“While I understand that some victims agree with my decision and others disagree, I hope this decision provides clarity and certainty for them moving forward," he said.

"The decision to commute these sentences was made to reflect what is now Colorado law, and done after a thorough outreach process to the victims and their families."

Udi Ofer, deputy national political director of the ACLU, celebrated how Colorado "will no longer kill people as punishment."

"In all the madness we are living under, here is some terrific news. Colorado has now officially abolished the death penalty," Ofer said in statement.

A Gallup poll in October showed that 56 percent of respondents favored it and 42 percent were opposed — that highest level of opposition since the death penalty was re-established.

Even though capital punishment had been the law in Colorado, the state has ranked at the very bottom of its use.

Colorado's last execution was in 1997, whenGary Lee Davis was given a lethal injection for kidnapping and murdering a 33-year-old woman.

"Colorado’s action exemplifies the trend we are seeing in states across the country, which is a continuing movement away from capital punishment, first in practice, then in law," said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a clearinghouse on capital punishment data.

"That is not a surprise. 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."

Capital punishment had been briefly set aside nationally in the 1970s, then reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976.

There have been 1,517 executions by states and the federal government since 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.