Colorado repeals death penalties and commutes three death row prisoners


Udita Jonnala

The death penalty, which has been hotly debated for centuries, continues to pose striking moral and ethical questions today.

Gov. Jared Polis signed the Death Penalty Abolition Bill on March 23, 2020, not only to save the state an estimated $1 million per year, but to break down racial disparity in capital punishment. 

Colorado takes place as the 22nd state to abolish the death penalty, after many years of debate on if this capital punishment was justified. On Jan. 30, this bill passed the Senate by a 19-13 vote and passed the House on Feb. 26 by a 38-27 vote.  This left three death row inmates Nathan Dunlap, Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray committed to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Even though they were convicted, Governor Polis believes these three criminals don’t deserve the capital punishment. In a 2018 interview with 9news, Polis included some interesting details he feels need to be heard.

“I will sign [the Colorado bill abolishing death penalty],” Polis said. “It’s not cost effective. It’s not an effective deterrent. And, you know, I do have a problem with some of the ways it’s been implemented from a racial-bias perspective as well. I mean, the fact that all three people on death row happen to be African American and yet the theater killer who killed 14 people didn’t get it, but somebody who killed two people got it, I mean, it makes you just sort of ask that question about why somebody who killed two people got it and why somebody who killed 14 people didn’t.”

Even though the Death Penalty Abolition Bill is signed, the victims of the families that have been murdered by the inmates still dissaprove of this act. Sen. Rhonda Fields, who stood against the repeal, had her son and his fiancèe murdered in 2005 by two of the inmates that previously stood on death row. She told the Denver Post on Jan. 11 how she struggled with the repeal.

“It’s hurtful, because it reminds me of my own personal trauma and scars as it relates to the death of my son and his fiancée, and I have to live with that pain and those scars every day,” Fields said.

Colorado has had a rocky past on where to stand on the repeal. Colorado was one of the first states to abolish the death penalty in 1897 but it got reinstated in 1901. Again in 2009, the Colorado House of Representatives passed the repeal, which had passed the House, but failed in the Senate by a 17-18 vote. After the fight between both sides of the repeal, the death penalty was not abolished. The extra money this bill is going to provide will go to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, which has 1,400 unsolved cases and one staff member for the cold case unit. In the end, more and more states are considering repealing death penalties. Rebublican Jack Tate, who changed his sides on the repeal explains how it is inhumane.

“I believe we should promote public policies that make our communities safer and provide victims with the services they need,” Tate said. “The death penalty fails to do those things while also risking innocent lives. My experience shows it is an ineffective and expensive system, and my philosophical stance is that the state should not have the power of life and death.”