Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Still 35 and Counting: Colorado Senate Defeats Death Penalty Ban

BOULDER, Colorado -- Colorado remains among the ranks of the 35 states that have retained capital punishment. On May 6, the state senate defeated a measure to repeal the state's death penalty statute by one vote. This was the same narrow margin by which the measure had passed the state's House of Representatives two weeks earlier.

The bill, HB 1274, was introduced by House Speaker Paul Weissmann at the beginning of this year's legislative session and sponsored by Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons, or FOHVAMP, a Colorado-based victims rights group. The proposed law would have eliminated the state's death penalty and then used the savings to the state to fund the investigation of cold cases.

During the senate debate, the bill was actually stripped of all language pertaining to the death penalty, and an amendment was introduced that would provide funding for cold case investigations through surcharges on traffic and felony fines. The death penalty ban was restored in the final version that the Senate voted down.

The combination of these two objectives into one bill has drawn a lot of controversy. Prosecutors across the state, including Attorney General John Suthers, railed against the bill, claiming that abolitionist groups were manipulating grieving families by dangling investigations into unsolved murders in front of them if they supported the ban.

As an organization, FOHVAMP has only sought the abolition of the death penalty because they feel it is a misallocation of the state's law enforcement resources. They have worked to distance themselves from both anti-death penalty groups and national victims advocacy organizations. FOHVAMP is not a large or well-funded organization; rather, they are focused on their goal of finding funds to investigate Colorado's more than 1,400 unsolved murders, and perhaps more importantly, providing a forum for families to grieve together.

The bill's proponents were accused of providing false hope to these families with this bill. But prosecutors and politicians continually extended the false hope to the families of homicide victims that the imposition of the death penalty will provide some measure of closure for them. But there is no closure to be had from this lengthy, arduous process that usually lasts for more than a decade and only ends in more death, more suffering, and one more grieving family.

And it is wholly disingenuous for prosecutors to suggest that grieving families were used by abolitionists in this fight. Firstly, FOHVAMP members are not led down a primrose path, deluded into believing that every last killer will be brought to justice, and to suggest so is offensive. Secondly, families that are in favor of capital punishment are gleefully paraded in front of the press by prosecutors when they seek death, while families that might be opposed are shuttered away. I guess prosecutors don't like it when someone suggests that they don't speak for victims' families.

Just as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said that being sentenced to death is like being struck by lighting, seeing your loved one's murderer put to death is equally arbitrary and random. Since 1967, only one person has been executed in Colorado, though the state has sought death 130 times. The lone execution was in 1997, when Gary Lee Davis was put to death for the brutal kidnapping, torture and murder of Virginia May in Adams County in 1986.

As a death penalty opponent, I must applaud FOHVAMP's efforts as admirable and shrewd. But I find the moral calculus in discussions about the death penalty troubling. Several states have recently looked into abolishing the death penalty as a means of closing budget shortfalls, and that was certainly a major reason why this Colorado bill nearly carried through the legislature. But putting people to death for their crimes is either morally right or it isn't; it is a societal necessity or it isn't. We should not be debating the costs, but the moral implications. Frankly, most of the debates on the utility of capital punishment never really hinge on utilitarian arguments, since the preponderance of evidence so heavily favors abolition. But if the debate is going to remain on an emotional level, then it is good to see a few grieving families on the side of abolition.

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