A historic vote on Friday has cleared the way for almost certain repeal of the death penalty in Colorado. The state senate voted 19–13 to advance SB20-100 to the Colorado House of Representatives, where experts and observers believe it will pass easily. Governor Jared Polis, a Democrat, is expected to sign the bill into law. Colorado is one of four states where the death penalty is currently under an official moratorium issued by a governor, but with SB20-100’s passage, it would become the 22nd to do away with capital punishment altogether.
The measure cleared this key hurdle with three Republicans voting in favor, all of whom co-sponsored the bill. Its most vocal opponent was a Democrat, Rhonda Fields, whose unusually personal stake in the outcome — the men convicted of murdering her son, Javan Fields, are two of the three inmates on Colorado’s death row today — has made her an outspoken advocate for capital punishment throughout her career in politics, according to the Denver Post. She spoke out against abolition once more on Thursday ahead of a key procedural vote, which was set to determine whether the bill would advance to a full senate ruling. But this time around, its proponents had the votes; Thursday’s outcome was seen as all but guaranteeing that SB20-100 would eventually become law.
The death penalty has been used with increased rarity in recent years. After reaching a high of 98 executions nationwide in 1999, the U.S. saw 25 in 2018, after decades of trending downward. The arguments against its use are familiar, and appear to be gaining a stronger foothold in conventional wisdom among officials and everyday people. For the first time since Gallup began polling the issue in the mid-1980s, it found last year that a substantial majority of Americans — 60 percent — preferred life imprisonment to capital punishment as a consequence for people convicted of murder.
Among the most frequent knocks against the death penalty, aside from the hypocrisy and moral dubiety of using murder to punish murder, is that it’s defined by bigotry and inconsistency. Its application tends to be racist — black people comprise 34 percent of those executed in the U.S. since 1976, despite being 13 percent of the general population; all three men on Colorado’s death row today are black, in a state that’s 87 percent white. And its capacity for error is astounding: A 2014 study from the National Academy of Sciences estimated that, at the current rate at which death-row inmates are being exonerated, 4.1 percent of people currently sentenced to die nationally will be found to have been innocent or given an unfair trial. Not to mention that the U.S. is an outlier in its use. We are the only advanced economy in the world besides Japan to still apply it.
Critics also note that that capital punishment is expensive and often torturous — the use of painful lethal-injection drugs has generated several legal challenges on the basis that it violates the Eighth Amendment. Paired with the fact that there’s no evidence that the death penalty deters crime, its continued use is defined by a logical dissonance on the part of its supporters. The Pew Research Center found in 2015 that nearly two-thirds of Americans felt that capital punishment was morally justified, even though a comparable share acknowledged that there was some risk that innocent people would be executed, that racial minorities were more likely than white people to be sentenced to death, and that it wasn’t an effective deterrent.
But many of those objections are beside the point. A key reason for the death penalty’s survival is its potency as a political cudgel. Few stances have proved to benefit candidates as consistently as “tough on crime,” particularly where “crime” is seen as synonymous with black people. Executions are an easy way to bolster that image. Politics helps explain why President Trump and Attorney General William Barr opted to bring back the federal death penalty at the end of last year, after years of an unofficial moratorium. It mattered little to them that their offices had been flooded with letters of protest from family members of people who’d been murdered — the very victims on whose behalf they were claiming to advocate. Theirs was a decision rooted less in victims’ rights and needs than the display of power symbolized by killing, and the prospect of exciting supporters who are drawn to such an exercise.
By almost certainly eschewing this same rationale in the coming weeks, Colorado will preserve the slim ideological majority enjoyed by death penalty–opposed states today. Twenty-six in total have either abolished or placed a moratorium on executions, with California, Oregon, and Pennsylvania set to be the only outliers who’ve halted executions but fallen short of abolition. Friday’s vote was a victory for advocates and others who’ve fought to cure Colorado of its bloodlust. But it was also a rebuke of the logic that the exercises of power that provide the most cathartic release are therefore morally defensible.