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Advocates for repealing the Colorado death penalty will be back before the legislature

January 18, 2017 Updated: January 18, 2017 at 5:03 pm
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Advocates for repealing the death penalty in Colorado are back with a legislative effort for the first time in four years, motivated by their belief the issue is gaining traction in battleground and red states.

But proponents still face an uphill battle in the legislature.

The Better Priorities Initiative of Colorado hopes to build off of work in the right-leaning state of Nebraska, where the legislature there repealed the death penalty in 2015, despite opposition led by Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts.

The Nebraska legislature repealed the death penalty over the governor's veto, becoming the first conservative state in more than four decades to abolish the death penalty.

But Nebraska voters in November reinstated the state's policy on capital punishment, with 61 percent voting to "repeal the repeal."

Still, supporters of abolishing the death penalty in Colorado say the action by the Nebraska legislature offers hope that Colorado lawmakers can cross party lines to advance a repeal.

A bill from Senate Democratic Leader Lucia Guzman of Denver is expected to be introduced as early as Wednesday.

"We've seen a renewed energy around ending the death penalty," said Stacy Anderson, outreach director for the Better Priorities Initiative of Colorado, who helped run the repeal effort in Nebraska. "It's definitely shifting to be more of a Western states movement."

The Nevada legislature this year is expected to take up a bill that would make the state's maximum punishment life in prison without parole. And Utah is expected to take up the issue again this year after a repeal bill failed on the last day of the legislative session last year. Washington state also is working on a bipartisan effort to abolish the death penalty.

Efforts to repeal in Colorado have failed in the past, including in 2013, when Democrats controlled the legislature. This year the legislature is split.

It's also unclear where Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, stands on abolishing the death penalty.

In 2013, the governor expressed "conflicting feelings" and upset some by granting a stay of execution to Nathan Dunlap, who was convicted of murder for the 1993 deaths of four people at an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese.

In 2014, Hickenlooper outlined his reasons for opposing the death penalty, which opened him up to attacks from Republicans as he headed into re-election. But he has never pushed to abolish capital punishment in the state.

Last year, Republican lawmakers attempted to make it easier to impose the death penalty by requiring only nine out of 12 members of a jury to deliver capital punishment. Current law requires a unanimous agreement. Supporters of the bill attempted to compromise by requiring 11 of the 12 jurors to agree, but that effort also failed, with the vote crossing party lines.

Repealing the death penalty in Colorado would be a major victory for supporters, especially given high-profile cases. Jurors in Arapahoe County could not unanimously agree to sentence the 2012 Aurora movie theater gunman to die by lethal injection.

George Brauchler, the Arapahoe County prosecutor who sought the death penalty in the Aurora movie theater case, said a judicial issue as important as capital punishment should not be left to the legislature.

"This is an issue for the people of the state of Colorado to decide," Brauchler said, suggesting that it would be better to refer the question to voters.

The Better Priorities Initiative of Colorado - which is pushing the repeal effort this year - said they have no immediate plans for a ballot drive.

The coalition consists of many of the usual groups that fight capital punishment, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Religious organizations also are part of the coalition.

Anderson said she expects the coalition to have bipartisan support, with Republicans speaking out against the death penalty as well.

One of the talking points used by repeal advocates is that capital punishment is an expensive burden on taxpayers, though detailed costs have not been recently researched in Colorado. Some estimates put the cost between $5 million and $10 million per year thanks to the need for extensive legal work.

The last time someone was executed in Colorado was in 1997.

"We're wasting millions of dollars on a punishment we don't use, and arguably, that most Coloradans have lost interest in," Anderson said. "There are things that we could be spending our money on that could make us all safer and actually be more effective for all Coloradans."

Brauchler, however, questions whether seeking capital punishment actually costs millions, or if there would be much of a savings to taxpayers if it were repealed.

"They want to suggest that if we didn't have the death penalty, we wouldn't have had the cost, but what is ignorant about that analysis is if you take the death penalty away, and God forbid something like the Aurora theater shooting happened tomorrow, you think the public defender's office is going to come in and say, 'Well, we're ready to plead guilty and go to prison forever,'" Brauchler asked.

"No. We're going to have the exact same trial, minus the sentencing phase for the death penalty, and that exact same expense."

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