Bill targets Colorado’s death penalty |

Bill targets Colorado’s death penalty

Jessica Fender
The Denver Post/AP
Aspen, CO Colorado

DENVER ” There are many questions that Charles Alvin Johnson may never see answered about the death of his daughter Regina, who was strangled in 2006.

What raced through her head as she lay bound, realizing she would die? How could a 110-pound woman have provoked such rage?

Who killed her?

“I’d like to know what kind of animal we’re dealing with,” said Johnson, 63, of Denver. “We find the guy, we convict the guy and we put him away for life. That suffering part would bring me happiness.”

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Johnson and more than 500 others who have lost friends and family to unsolved murders are pushing a plan to end Colorado’s death penalty and spend the savings to investigate the state’s more than 1,300 cold cases.

The bill, which House Majority Leader Paul Weissmann, D-Louisville, said he plans to introduce next week, has already sparked opposition from the state’s top prosecutors and promises to prompt a political firefight. It threatens to put Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter, a former district attorney and a Catholic, in tricky territory as well.

Republican Attorney General John Suthers and district attorneys say the death penalty is key to discouraging the worst crimes.

The threat of death is the only deterrent left for inmates sentenced to life in prison who might kill a guard or another inmate, Suthers said.

“If you don’t have a death penalty, those are free murders,” Suthers said. “There remains some crimes, some murders, that anything short of the death penalty is an inadequate societal response.”

He listed as examples a hypothetical terrorist attack or the real case of witness-killer Sir Mario Owens, one of two inmates now on death row.

Bill proponents argue that catching more killers ” they estimate three in 10 walk free ” is a more effective deterrent.

Weissmann, whose 2007 version of the bill narrowly died on the House floor, estimates abolishing capital punishment could save the state $2 million a year and local authorities another $2.5 million.

“Any other program that cost that much and was used so little would be the first to go,” he said.

Colorado is one of 36 states that puts the worst of the worst to death, although it’s an infrequent punishment.

Rapist-murderer Gary Lee Davis, who kidnapped his victim in front of her children, died by injection in 1997 ” making him the only person Colorado has put to death in more than four decades.

Last year, bill supporters were unprepared and the bill nearly passed, said Howard Morton of the group Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons. This year, he said, backers are better armed.

They have traveled the state drumming up support for the measure through public forums.

“We expect to win,” Morton said. “Our position is very simple. Why talk about penalties when we haven’t even caught (them)? Let’s do first things first. These murderers are living in our neighborhoods.”

Ted Tow, executive director for the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council, said voters, not the legislature, should decide the death penalty’s fate.

“It is an unfair and disingenuous tie between the two issues,” Tow said. “If the legislature wants to have a debate about the death penalty, it should do so. And frankly, it shouldn’t do so.”

Ritter, one of Tow’s former compatriots, could get final say over whether Colorado kills capital punishment if Weissmann’s bill passes. He declined, through a spokesman, to comment on pending legislation.

Ritter is likely to draw fire from all sides over the issue.

Analysts say his bona fides as a moderate Democrat with across-the-aisle appeal could take a hit with the 2010 election looming should he support abolishing the death penalty.

Meanwhile, Charles Chaput, archbishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver, supported abolishing the death penalty two years ago, saying that while “long Catholic traditions do support the legitimacy of capital punishment in extraordinary cases, the conditions that would justify its use in developed countries like the United States almost never exist.”

Bill supporters are hopeful that he’ll lend his support again.

Ritter unsuccessfully sought the death penalty seven times as Denver’s top prosecutor, and his spokesman said he supports capital punishment.

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