DENVER – One vote. That’s how close Democrats came to outlawing the death penalty in Colorado a few years ago. Had they succeeded, the current debate over whether or not accused killer James Eagan Holmes ought to face capital punishment might be little more than academic.
In a campaign season dominated by concerns about the sputtering economy and ailing job market, the legality of the death penalty was among the furthest thing from voters’ minds – until the July 20 movie theater massacre in Aurora.
Within days of the shooting, liberal politicians predictably began using the tragedy as a platform to stump for stricter gun control laws. But unlike in previous years, few mainstream Democrats have been willing to risk alienating middle of the road voters in swing states by calling for new restrictions on gun rights – primarily because such measures no longer enjoy the popular support they once did.
“In the early 90s, Gallup found that 78 percent of Americans supported stricter gun control regulations,” Fox News Sunday’s Chris Wallace noted last weekend, “That’s now down to 44 percent.”
That might explain why some commentators are looking at where candidates for state and federal office stand on issues other than gun control in the wake of the shootings.
One of those issues, capital punishment, has taken center stage in recent days as District Attorney Carol Chambers mulls whether or not to seek the death penalty against the alleged perpetrator of the Aurora theater slayings.
Last Minute Reprieve
While support for capital punishment has slipped nominally in recent years, a 2011 Gallup poll showed that more than 60 percent of Americans back the death penalty. But that didn’t dissuade Colorado Democrats from attempting to repeal Colorado’s death penalty three years ago.
Renewed public discussion about the wisdom and constitutionality of capital punishment in the wake of the shootings has prompted some political observers to take a closer look at the 2009 debate over a bill that would have ended capital punishment in Colorado.
The contentious bill passed with a razor-thin one-vote margin in April 2009 through what was then a Democrat controlled state House of Representatives.
The bare majority of 33 state representatives who voted to end the death penalty that day included State Reps. Joe Miklosi (D-Denver) and Sal Pace (D-Pueblo), both of whom are now campaigning for seats in Congress.
After clearing the House with Miklosi and Pace’s support, the proposed ban made its way to the Democrat-controlled State Senate, where then-Minority Leader Josh Penry (R-Grand Junction) was able to cobble together a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers to defeat the bill.
Ultimately, four Democrats – Jim Isgar of Ignacio, Mary Hodge of Brighton, Majority Leader John Morse of Colorado Springs, and Lois Tochtrop of Thornton – sided with the chamber’s 14 Republicans to kill the controversial proposal on a 17-18 vote.
“Obviously no one knew the name James Eagan Holmes at the time,” Penry told The Observer, “but this is exactly the kind of barbaric scenario that we discussed. We talked about Nathan Dunlap. We described the names and the personal stories of the victims of Ted Bundy in Colorado.”
“For truly heinous crimes like these, the death penalty isn’t only a good option — it is what justice requires,” Penry added.
Penry said it was tough for the four Democrats to break ranks and vote with Republicans to defeat the legislation.
“I think [Jim] Isgar, John [Morse], Mary [Hodge], and Lois [Tochtrop] showed a ton of moral courage on that one,” said Penry.
Morse, typically known for more liberal views on questions of social policy, railed against the legislation, chiding fellow Democrats for bringing the legislation forward.
“It appears that for some reason, we want a referendum on the death penalty,” Morse said during floor debate on the divisive proposal three years ago. “I thought it was about helping victims.”
State Senator Morgan Carroll, an Aurora Democrat and lead Senate sponsor of the 2009 bill, characterized the effort to ban capital punishment as one that would have “traded vengeance for justice.”
Mike Littwin, then a radical left-wing columnist for The Denver Post, went further, arguing that abolishing the death penalty is part of “the march of history that leaves [capital punishment’s supporters] in league with forward thinkers such as China and Iran.”
Cheers from liberal columnists notwithstanding, their 2009 votes in favor of banning the death penalty may prove tricky for Miklosi and Pace who are campaigning in swing districts.
Even some Democrats, like Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey, seem to agree that opponents of capital punishment may have gone too far in trying to tie the hands of prosecutors.
“We haven’t sought the death penalty in quite some time,” said Morrissey, “But that doesn’t mean it’s not important.”
Morrissey referenced the case of Travis Forbes, a serial killer who led police to the body of a 19-year old girl in return for prosecutors not seeking the death penalty against him.
Without that bargaining chip, Morrissey suggested, the families of victims might never get closure.
“I don’t think people think about that sometimes,” said Morrissey.
“You look at what happened in Aurora,” Morrissey told The Observer, “[The death penalty] doesn’t always apply, but when one of these tragic murders takes place, people actively contact me asking me to seek the death penalty. [Determining whether or not to do so] is a task we take very seriously.”
Morrissey also lamented the “dishonest” nature of the 2009 debate, in which opponents of capital punishment initially proposed using the savings generated by abolishing the death penalty to investigate so-called “cold cases.”
“I was sad to see them use these families [of cold case victims] as pawns for their true agenda, which was to end the death penalty. That was revealing to me,” said Morrissey. “It wasn’t about cold cases at all. They were using those folks, and I thought that was disrespectful.”
“Whether or not Colorado has a death penalty is something that ought to be decided by the voters, not the legislature,” Morrissey concluded. “The legislature is just too political.”