DENVER–The Democratic legislature’s string of wins on hot-button social issues took a hit Tuesday as the House Judiciary Committee rejected a bill to repeal the death penalty.
State Reps. Lois Court (D-Denver) and Brittany Pettersen (D-Lakewood) sided with Republicans to defeat the measure by a vote of 6-4.
Gov. John Hickenlooper’s reservations about the bill and the possibility of a veto were cited as key factors in convincing the Democrats to break ranks.
“I know we should repeal the death penalty,” said Court. “I also know that the governor has publicly said that he is struggling with it, and that he is not confident that the people of Colorado are comfortable with this approach at this point.”
The bill’s defeat represents the first time this year that the Democratic governor has publicly used his clout to prevent a piece of liberal social legislation from reaching his desk. The vote also exposes a simmering intraparty rift between Hickenlooper and left-wing legislators.
State Rep. Claire Levy (D-Boulder) blamed the governor for the defeat of the House Bill 1264. Before Hickenlooper’s comments last week at the Democratic caucus luncheon, she told KDVR-TV that she believed the bill had enough votes to win passage.
“I think had the governor not signaled so strongly he wouldn’t sign the bill, I think we would have had those votes,” said Levy, who sponsored the repeal with Rep. Jovan Melton (D-Aurora), in the Denver Post.
Still alive is a bill to refer a death-penalty repeal to the November ballot. Sponsored by state Rep. Rhonda Fields (D-Aurora), the measure is scheduled for a vote Wednesday before the House Local Government Committee.
Given that recent polls show most Coloradans support the death penalty, it’s unlikely that Democrats will risk an embarrassing electoral defeat by allowing the Fields bill to clear the panel. A poll taken by the Tarrance Group in December found that 68 percent of Colorado voters surveyed were in favor of capital punishment.
Even before Hickenlooper weighed in against it, the death-penalty repeal was seen as politically tricky. Opposing the bill was Fields, who represents the district where the Aurora theater massacre took place and whose son and fiancee were killed in 2005 by two of the three inmates on Colorado’s Death Row.
Fields and her daughter Maisha Fields-Pollard testified against H.B. 1264 during last week’s nine-hour committee hearing. The bill would have applied only to future cases, but the two women said they worried that a repeal would bolster the killers’ chances of bargaining their sentences down to life during the appeals process.
“Today I sit before you asking you to not put the justice of my brother at risk,” said Fields-Pollard at the hearing.
In remarks Tuesday, state Rep. Jared Wright (R-Grand Junction) said the bill caught many Colorado voters by surprise, given that capital punishment was rarely if ever mentioned during the 2012 legislative campaign.
“I don’t think it’s a decision that should be left up to us,” said Wright. “I would caution all the members of this body to lean on the people of this state–who did not make this a campaign issue for us–lean on the people and ask them to make this decision, the same decision that we ask them to make as jurors.”
State Rep. Joe Salazar (D-Thornton) said legislators should support the bill despite what their constituents might think.
“We were sent here not just to make the easy decisions, but we were sent here by our constituents to make some very tough decisions,” said Salazar. “Sometimes those tough decisions run counter to what majority believes, but that’s why we were sent here.”
Levy ticked off problems with the death penalty, saying it was unfairly and arbitrarily applied, and contended that its sole purpose was to satisfy a societal need for vengence.
“In our system of justice, a penalty should serve a purpose,” said Levy. “It should deter, it should protect public safety. 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.”
Challenging her claim was state Rep. Bob Gardner (R-Colorado Springs), who took exception to being characterized as someone bent on revenge.
“I do not think that those of us who support the death penalty in appropriate circumstances, that we somehow are less civilized or that we somehow are doing that out of seeking revenge and retribution,” said Gardner. “I’m sure it wasn’t directed personally, but it must be answered.”