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December 30, 2012

Intriguing talk of death penalty initiative vote in Colorado in 2014

The Denver Post has this intriguing new article discussing the state of the debate concerning the death penalty in Colorado.  The piece is headlined "Rep. Fields wants Colorado voters to decide death penalty question," and here are excerpts:

A lawmaker who saw her son's killers sentenced to die says Colorado voters — and not 100 lawmakers under the state Capitol's golden dome — should decide whether to abolish the death penalty.

As state Rep. Rhonda Fields' Democratic colleagues attempt to gather support for ending capital punishment through legislation, she has started work on a bill that would put the death-penalty question on the 2014 ballot, she said.

Her counterproposal sets the stage for a political showdown on a traditionally touchy topic at the Capitol, where some key officials' stances against abolishing the death penalty have recently softened.  "Colorado lawmakers should not slam the door on justice for those who commit heinous crimes," Fields said.  "I believe that society must be protected, and the voters should decide the fate of capital punishment."

Colorado has executed one man since the death penalty was reinstated in Colorado in 1975.  Three men currently wait on death row.  Two of them — Robert Ray and Sir Mario Owens — were responsible for shooting Javad Marshall-Fields to death in 2005 to prevent him from testifying against them in a previous murder case.  Marshall-Fields' fiancée, Vivian Wolfe, was also killed.

Already sentenced to life in prison by the time they went to trial for the murders of Fields' son and would-be daughter-in-law, the killers would have faced no additional penalty had capital punishment been repealed, Attorney General John Suthers pointed out. "For killing the witness in your case, you're going to get no more serious consequence than if they'd testified against you?" Suthers asked.  "Life imprisonment is not an adequate societal response."...

State Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, said that while she has not yet drafted 2013 legislation to end the death penalty, she has no plans to undo the sentences of men already on death row.  She pointed to the number of exonerations nationwide, research showing that Colorado's death penalty is applied arbitrarily and the increasing number of states abandoning capital punishment....

So far, she has been joined by Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett, who has said publicly that while he has no moral objection to the death penalty, lengthy and complex litigation and appeals are a drain on resources better spent elsewhere. One of the state senators who helped kill a similar bill Levy carried in 2009 — Senate President-elect John Morse, D-Colorado Springs — said recently that he has rethought his position. And Gov. John Hickenlooper, who told The Denver Post in 2010 that he opposed repealing the death penalty, now says his mind is not made up on the topic.

Fields' proposed referred measure would add some uncertainty to the mix. For lawmakers, it could take away the risk of appearing soft on crime by giving them the option to send the death-penalty question to their constituents. A 2008 poll by RBI Strategies found Coloradans evenly split on the most appropriate punishment for murder, with 45 percent favoring death and an equal portion favoring life without parole....

No one can predict how the public's mood might change by November 2014 — or if Fields' measure will be on the ballot that year.  But if it is, Fields said, at least the matter will be decided by a broad array of people, some who have been affected by crime like she has. And should the vote go against her?  "That," she said, "is a decision I could live with."

I believe that death penalty abolitionists should welcome any and all efforts to have capital punishment repeal placed before voters directly via the initiative process; I think any national abolition movement will gain real momentum only if and when a significant group of voters directly repeal a state's death penalty law via a majority vote. And if such a repeal vote were to happen in a swing state like Colorado, and especially if national murder rates continue at their historic low levels, then I think the abolitionist community could realistically start to imagine a future United States without any use of the death penalty.

December 30, 2012 at 12:15 PM | Permalink


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Doug --

I join you in welcoming the prospect of a voter initiative on the death penalty. I wonder, though, why a vote for abolition would (assertedly) have such earth shaking consequences, while a vote for retention, so far as you mention it, would just disappear with the wind.

Be that as it may, let's see if there are any hints about what might happen in a Colorado referendum.

Well, in another Western state, California, we just had a DP referendum. The retentionist side was outspent 20-1. Hollywood celebrities and millionaires galore contributed to the abolition campaign. And it was sure a good year for liberal causes; Obama, a tepid (at best) supporter of the DP, walloped Romney by a fat 23 points, 60-37.

But what did those same voters say about retention vs. abolition? They retained the DP by 4 points, 52-48.

OK, now let's go to Colorado. Coloradans voted for Obama by 51-46, giving him a margin of 5 points, or 18 points less than he won by in California.

So we know (1) that in Colorado, the liberal candidate, Obama, did much worse than he did in California, and (2) in California, voters still retained the DP after a huge campaign against it.

Q: What does this tell you about what's going to happen in the Colorado referendum?

A: Nothing definitive, but it's a straw, if not a 2x4, in the wind.

As I noted, I, as a death penalty backer, would welcome the proposed referendum. Go for it, abbies! The voters are on to you, but you can always tell us why Adam Lanza, had he been captured, should have received only a jail sentence.

This should be good.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 30, 2012 5:45:11 PM

Abolitionists must be held accountable for all future prison murders, numbering an order of magnitude larger than the number of executions.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 30, 2012 5:48:53 PM

I would note that there is another "intriguing article" out, in the Colorado Springs Independent, on this same subject, http://www.csindy.com/coloradosprings/capitol-punishment/Content?oid=2594889

So just to be "fair and balanced," here are some excepts:

Opponents of Colorado's death penalty are working behind the scenes in preparation for the 2013 session of the state Legislature.

According to the NAACP's Rosemary Harris Lytle, death-penalty abolitionists have been meeting to discuss the upcoming session and the possibility of moving forward a bill to remove the death penalty.

Harris Lytle wouldn't comment on specifics.


[T]his conversation undoubtedly will be affected by the high-profile case of James Holmes, who is standing trial for the Aurora theater shooting. According to a recent Rasmussen poll, 66 percent of Coloradans believe that Holmes ought to receive the death penalty.

Currently, three men sit on Colorado's death row.

For [House Minority Leader Mark] Waller, who supports the death penalty, the best example of where it could arguably be applied is in the case of Miguel Alonso Contreras-Perez, a convicted sex offender accused of murdering a female correctional officer in September. "What do you do with a guy like that?" Waller asks. "He's already serving a life sentence. What, do you give him another life sentence for that?"

Or, for example, Edward Montour Jr., convicted of a 2002 attack on a correctional officer while serving a life sentence. ###

So let's see here. Colorado has (1) the Aurora mass killer, the illustrious James Holmes; (2) a guy already serving a life sentence who then killed one of his prison guards; and (3) as Doug's excerpt shows, another guy who killed a witness to a previous murder for which he was about to face trial.

Or, to summarize, Coloradans have sitting right in front of their faces three of the most vivid examples imaginable of why we should keep the death penalty.

That's just beautiful.

Hey, Ms. Harris Lytle, go for it! Your decision to seek the electorate's judgment about the DP against THAT factual backdrop shows the kind of political stupidity one seldom sees.

My father once told me to thank God for your enemies, and, believe me, I do.

P.S. My guess is that some abbie with at least a grain of sense will stop this thing before it gets the drubbng it's headed for.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 31, 2012 12:07:49 AM

|| Robert Ray and Sir Mario Owens — were responsible for shooting Javad Marshall-Fields to death in 2005…Marshall-Fields' fiancée, Vivian Wolfe, was also killed.| |

/ Attorney General John Suthers: "For killing the witness in your case, you're going to get no more serious consequence than if they'd testified against you?" Suthers asked. "Life imprisonment is not an adequate societal response." \

Could anyone with the power of circumspection disagree?

Posted by: Adamakis | Dec 31, 2012 9:12:51 AM

Adamakis --

It's not about circumspection. It's about calling you, federalist, Kent, me and quite a few others here -- not to mention a big majority of the American people -- Nazis and barbarians and the usual list.

Peter, claudio and their pals have no answer to Suthers' question, but, more to the point, they're not interested in having an answer. It has nothing to do with answers. It has to do with their breastbeating about how refined they are. If witnesses get murdered, hey, look, no big deal. They were probably just racists anyway.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 31, 2012 11:16:43 AM

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