In Colorado, legislators across the political spectrum have come together to end the expensive, unjust and ineffective death penalty process. Why? State-sanctioned executions go against principles that call on conservatives to defend life and champion fiscal responsibility. Progressives are responsive to arguments that the death penalty is arbitrarily implemented, disproportionately impacting people of color, people living in poverty, and people with mental illnesses or intellectual and developmental disabilities. All of us agree that we cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing.
A death penalty sentence risks making irreversible mistakes. Since 1973, at least 166 people have been exonerated from death rows across the country, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit that tracks data on capital punishment. That’s approximately one person exonerated for every nine who have been executed. In Colorado, researchers at the University of Denver found 75% of capital trials contain errors so serious that the death sentences are vacated or reversed. We know that the state has already executed an innocent person.
Thus, the risks are too great to maintain this unjust system.
The irrevocable nature of the death penalty makes the trials and decades of appeals exceedingly expensive. Colorado taxpayers pay $3.5 million for a death penalty trial, about 23 times more than a non-capital trial, as calculated by Coloradans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty based on open records requests.
Since 1980, Coloradans have paid for over 130 capital prosecutions, at a cost of over $1.5 million per year. Only one person has been executed. Countless law enforcement hours are spent chasing death sentences instead of addressing some of the hundreds of unsolved murder cases in Colorado. The death penalty process consumes millions of dollars better invested in solving cold cases, expanding services for victims’ families, or addressing the root causes of violence through programs that can actually work to deter crime (something we know the death penalty does not do).
Whether or not you face the death penalty in Colorado depends more on the color of your skin, your socio-economic status, the quality of your attorney, and where you live than on the seriousness of your crime. In Colorado, people of color in Arapahoe, Douglas or Lincoln counties are 14 times more likely to face the death penalty, according to a 2015 report in the University of Denver Law Review.
Our criminal justice system should treat all people equally. In reality, the death penalty is applied unevenly and unfairly, even in similar crimes. Each year, thousands of Americans commit death-eligible crimes, but only a small handful are ever sentenced to death. Of the 539 defendants in Colorado who were eligible for the death penalty, only three received death sentences — all black men who went to the same high school.
The death penalty system can harm victims’ families by forcing them to relive the trauma of the murder over decades, by undermining the healing process as they navigate complicated legal trials and by bringing additional attention to the person who committed the murder. Despite enduring unimaginable grief, Colorado victims’ families continue to urge lawmakers to end a system that only causes additional harm.
Despite common misconceptions, the death penalty is neither a deterrent nor an effective plea-bargaining tool. In fact, using executions as a bargaining chip increases the risk that innocent people will plea to a crime they did not commit. Robert Dewey, a Coloradan who was threatened with the death penalty and spent 17 years in prison on a wrongful murder charge, asked, “If the criminal justice system cannot be trusted to put the right man behind bars, how can it be trusted to put the right man to death?”
When the government metes out vengeance disguised as justice, it becomes complicit with those who kill in devaluing human life. Regardless of party, we believe in a limited government because we know government is prone to corruption, ineffectiveness, and error. The death penalty is certainly no exception. In a society that aspires for fairness and justice, there is no room for the death penalty.
Julie Gonzales is a state senator from Denver. She is a Democrat. Jack Tate is a state senator from Arapahoe County. He is a Republican. They are running Senate Bill 100 to repeal the Colorado death penalty. The bill will be heard at 1:30 p.m. Monday in Room 357 in the Colorado Capitol.