DENVER–Democrats eager to repeal the death penalty with their newly elected legislative majorities can expect a few not-insignificant obstacles.
The Democratic leadership likely has the votes to abolish capital punishment in Colorado, given the party’s 20-15 majority in the Senate and a 37-28 lead in the House. In 2009, the last time they controlled both houses, Democrats came within one vote of moving a repeal bill to the desk of Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter.
Among those who voted in favor of the measure were state Rep. Mark Ferrandino, the newly designated House Speaker, and Senate Majority Leader Morgan Carroll.
The problem for Democrats is that several things have changed since 2009, starting with the Aurora theater shooting. Any move to eliminate the death penalty would be inextricably linked to the prosecution of James Eagan Holmes, the suspect in the July massacre that left 12 dead.
Holmes, 24, is seen as a prime candidate for the death penalty, barring a successful insanity plea or other mitigating factors. If Democrats proceed with a bill, they could be faced not only with justifying the repeal of capital punishment but also explaining why Holmes deserves to live.
“You’re going to find an awful lot of blue-collar Democrats who happened to vote for President Obama and legislative Democrats in this race who are going to have an instinctive belief that nothing short of paying with his life would be a just verdict,” said former Senate Majority Leader John Andrews, now director of the Centennial Institute at Colorado Christian University.
Another hurdle lies with Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat who has shown no interest in tackling capital punishment. Sources say the governor has already indicated privately that he won’t sign a party-line bill, meaning that Democrats will need to enlist Republican support.
“The governor says he needs a few Republicans on the bill. He wants cover,” said one GOP staffer.
Republicans who oppose the death penalty usually fall into one of two camps: They’re libertarians who object to the high cost of the Death Row appeals process, or they’re religious conservatives who see capital punishment as a pro-life issue.
Both varieties of Republican can now be found in the legislature, but history suggests that flipping them won’t be easy. In 2009, only one Republican switched sides to vote in favor of abolishing the death penalty: state Rep. Don Marostica of Loveland, a moderate who later stepped down to take a position in the Ritter administration.
Then there’s the Fields factor. The House Democratic caucus includes state Rep. Rhonda Fields, whose son Javad Marshall Fields and his fiancee Vivian Wolfe were gunned down in 2005 after he agreed to testify in a homicide case. Two men, Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray, were convicted of the murders and are now awaiting execution on Colorado’s Death Row.
Democrats seeking to abolish the death penalty don’t need Fields’ vote, but they do need her tacit cooperation. If Fields decides to lead the charge against a repeal on behalf of crime victims and their families, she could drum up enough of an outcry to scare off lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
Republican state Rep. Frank McNulty, the outgoing House Speaker, said he was unaware of how Republicans would break on the issue, but added that he doubted there would be uniform Democratic support for a repeal.
“We haven’t had a conversation in some time about the death-penalty, so I don’t think anyone has a head count,” said McNulty. “I would not support a repeal of capital punishment in Colorado, and I would suspect there are Democrats who feel the same way.”