death penalty

Colorado Abolishes the Death Penalty

Colorado Governor Jared Polis.
Colorado governor Jared Polis. Photo: Jason Connolly/AFP via Getty Images

Colorado has officially repealed the death penalty. Governor Jared Polis, following his own public-health guidelines aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus, announced his signing of SB20-100 in a press release rather than at a big table surrounded by advocates and hand-shaking cabinet members, according to Colorado Public Radio. The news concludes a legislative effort that began in earnest in 2007. Since then, various inroads toward abolition have been thwarted by bipartisan opposition.

That resistance was overwhelmed in the lead-up to Monday’s legislation. A key procedural vote in January advanced the bill from the State Senate, where it faced its fiercest adversaries, to the House of Representatives, where observers predicted it would have a much easier path forward. Three Senate Republicans co-sponsored the bill, despite promises from their House colleagues that they’d do whatever they could to stop it getting to the governor’s desk. (A futile effort, as largely supportive Democrats control the House.) And its main opponent in the senate was a Democrat. Rhonda Fields had a uniquely personal stake in Monday’s outcome: Two of the three men on Colorado’s death row were convicted in the 2005 murder of her son. (In concert with the law’s passage, Polis commuted the three men’s sentences to life without the possibility of parole.)

Capital punishment in the state had been under official moratorium until this week. This is consistent with a nationwide decline in its usage. Almost two decades of downward trends saw annual executions in the United States fall from their peak of 98 in 1999 to 25 in 2018. Gallup’s latest poll on the subject, which it began conducting periodically in the mid-1980s, found last year that 60 percent of Americans preferred life without parole to execution as a consequence for murder — the biggest majority yet recorded. Broadly speaking, arguments against the death penalty are the closest to conventional wisdom that they’ve been in a long time.

These arguments are myriad. Capital punishment is overwhelmingly racist in application, and the United States is the only developed economy besides Japan to use it. It’s not a demonstrated deterrent against crime, and is notoriously error-prone; a 2014 study from the National Academy of Sciences concluded that at the current rate at which death-row inmates are being exonerated, 4.1 percent of those currently awaiting execution will eventually be found innocent or to have received an unfair trial. Even so, there’s disagreement over how these facts should affect policy. In 2015, nearly two-thirds of Americans still thought the death penalty was morally justified, even though a comparable share acknowledged that innocent people would probably become casualties, that racial minorities were more likely to be executed than white people, and that it wasn’t an effective deterrent, according to the Pew Research Center.

By rejecting these moral acrobatics, Colorado has become the latest of 22 U.S. states to have abolished it. Three others have it under governor-imposed moratoriums, meaning the country is split evenly between states that use capital punishment and those that do not. For advocates, it’s a corrective to years of misguided thinking. “I think [other survivors] have been led by prosecutors and politicians and sometimes family members too, to this hope that they’re going to find peace. They’re going to find closure. Everything is going to be fine,” Gail Rice, a 72-year-old death penalty opponent whose brother, a Denver police officer, was murdered in 1997, told CPR. “And that’s false.”

Colorado Abolishes the Death Penalty