June 16, 2013 Updated: June 16, 2013 at 8:15 am
When I heard the news that Gov. John Hickenlooper had granted a reprieve to Nathan Dunlap, indefinitely staying his execution, I felt tremendous relief. While the NAACP State Conference and other civil rights groups had urged the governor to grant clemency, the middle ground of a temporary reprieve meant that our state's "chief executive officer" had acknowledged Colorado's broken capital punishment system.
The governor's reprieve power is as old as the state itself, and was written into the first Colorado Constitution. A governor's role in the capital punishment system is no less than that of jurors. By virtue of the power vested by the Constitution, a Colorado governor can take into account all available information - including information about the defendant in the years since trial or information that was not known when a defendant was sentenced by a jury - and can consider issues such as racial bias and geographic disparity.
In his executive order granting Nathan Dunlap's reprieve, Gov. Hickenlooper raised serious questions about the fairness and effectiveness of the Colorado death penalty, and called on all Coloradans to educate ourselves about the problems that led him to conclude that Dunlap should not be executed.
I applaud that decision, and I hope it will lead to the repeal of the death penalty in Colorado in the very near future.
At the same time, when I learned of the reprieve I felt deep sadness for the families of Dunlap's victims. I recognized that the governor's decision neither to grant clemency outright nor to allow Dunlap to be executed would deny victim family members the kind of closure they've sought for twenty years.
As an eldest child who lost her father to violent crime when he was only 46, I believe that the lack of closure for victims is an important reason why the death penalty must be abolished. A non-death-penalty, first-degree murder case can often be brought to a jury verdict and a life-without-parole sentence within a year. The court proceedings are over quickly. The family of the victim can focus on healing.
But the enormity of the death penalty means that every step of the capital punishment process takes exponentially longer, and every hearing, every decision, attracts intense media scrutiny. A family's healing is put on indefinite hold. If the death penalty is aimed at making murderers pay and giving "justice" to victims' families, it achieves that goal poorly, at best.
We could devote the millions of dollars spent each year on the few death-penalty cases in Colorado to services for victims, crime prevention, solving cold-cases, or countless law-enforcement priorities that would serve more people, more effectively. With no state death penalty, we would never face the risk of executing an innocent. We would not have to wonder about the evidence of inherent bias and inequity. We would not have to ask whether our capital punishment system is simply legalized lynching. We might achieve justice.
Lytle is president of the NAACP Colorado/Montana/Wyoming State Conference and National Board Secretary of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation.