Two Democrats joined every Republican on the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday to put the brakes on a proposed death penalty repeal after Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper had earlier hinted that he might veto the legislation.
“In my heart, this is absolutely the right thing to do. I know we should repeal the death penalty,” said Rep. Lois Court, D-Denver, before explaining that Hickenlooper’s publicly stated reservations had prompted her to “very regretfully be a no vote” on the measure.
House Bill 1264, sponsored by Reps. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, and Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, died on a 4-6 vote, with Rep. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, joining Court and the panel’s four Republicans voting against it. (Rep. Mike McLachlan, D-Durango, was absent from the hearing after having been hospitalized late last week for medical tests.)
Efforts to repeal the death penalty come at a particularly charged moment in the state, as one of Colorado’s three death-row prisoners, Chuck E. Cheese’s shooter Nathan Dunlap, appears to have exhausted his appeals and could face execution by lethal injection in the coming months. In another case, prosecutors are expected to announce by next week whether they intend to seek the death penalty against accused Batman shooter James Holmes, who stands accused of murdering 12 theater patrons and wounding more than 50 others. The proposed repeal would have left in place death sentences for anyone convicted of crimes that took place before July.
A week earlier, before the bill had its marathon hearing before Judiciary — testimony lasted more than nine hours — House Democrats said they had the votes to pass the legislation, counting what they said was nearly every member of the caucus except Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora. But soon word emerged that Hickenlooper had expressed qualms about the bill at a caucus luncheon that same day, putting its fate in question.
“There are some things we’re going to have to disagree on,” Hickenlooper told the Democrats when asked about the death penalty repeal, according to a legislator who was present at the luncheon. “And those things we disagree on, I’ll have to veto.”
Later last week, after signing the civil unions bill, Hickenlooper told reporters that it seemed to him that “a pretty significant majority of people still favored the death penalty,” and said the question was “worth a little more discussion.” It could be a matter of timing, he said, comparing the question to the legislation he had just signed, which had been working its way through the legislature for three years before landing on his desk. “I’m wondering whether we don’t need just a little more maturation.”
Fields, whose son was murdered by two of the three prisoners on Colorado’s death row, sponsored a competing measure that would have instead taken the question to voters. She postponed action on that bill last Wednesday and this week killed the proposal for good in another committee.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Court acknowledged Hickenlooper’s perspective.
“The governor travels all over the state, and he has the opportunity to talk with numerous people,” she said. “I respect that he is conflicted about this because of what he has heard from people all over the state. I think that we need to take a deep breath and consider what the ramifications of this repeal would be, if we pass this out of this committee.”
In the end, she said, she wasn’t sure what Coloradans wanted either.
“I think it’s important for us to be cognizant of what the people of this state expect. And I don’t know that they expect this of us at this point. I don’t know that they don’t. But because of that hesitation, and because of my concern to respect what the people really are thinking, I want to use this opportunity to provoke more conversation and get more input from the people of the state,” Court said.
Pettersen didn’t discuss her vote during the committee hearing but later told The Colorado Statesman that she had wrestled with the “very hard vote.”
“I represent my constituents, and I know the repeal of the death penalty would not represent what my constituents want right now,” she said “It wasn’t something I ran on or talked about on the campaign trail, so this would have been a vote where we were truly going in front of the voters.”
She countered reports that the governor’s office had leaned on Democrats to take the issue off the table. “The governor’s office did not pressure us in any way,” she said, adding that she agreed that the question is far from settled one way or the other.
“I believe we need to have a conversation with voters about this. We need to work within our districts, with our constants, to see if this is something they believe we need to address moving forward,” Pettersen said.
Levy said that she had reviewed last week’s lengthy testimony and thought it was worth considering some of the points that had been made. The family members of victims said that the drawn-out process seeking the death penalty — decades in some cases — prevents survivors from reaching any sort of closure, Levy said. Others said they were disturbed by the arbitrary manner in which the death penalty has been sought, seemingly stacking one heinous crime against another and finding some less worthy of the state’s ultimate punishment.
She also pointed out that executions are no longer conducted “in the town square,” but instead at a distant arm’s length in a “sterile, quasi-medical procedure.” She added, “It does not serve a purpose, it is not fairly and consistently applied, it is not necessary for justice.”
“The only thing the death penalty does is give some feeling of retribution, and I reject retribution as a valid purpose for taking the life of another person, no matter how bad they are,” Levy concluded.
Melton restated his support for the repeal before the committee voted.
“When the only three people on death row are African-American males, in their 30s, and from my district, there is an injustice there,” he said.
Calling the vote “a profoundly personal decision that each one of us makes,” ranking committee Republican Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, pushed back against suggestions by Levy that the death penalty only satisfies an urge for retribution.
“I do not think for those of us who support the death penalty in appropriate circumstances that we are somehow less civilized for what we are doing, to seek revenge or retribution,” Gardner said. He later added, “It’s about justice — justice should never be about revenge.”
Earlier, at Gardner’s suggestion, the committee unanimously amended the bill to strip language describing the death penalty as a “failed public policy” and other characterizations he said might give defense attorneys leverage to overturn existing death sentences in the state.