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Death penalty repeal effort sparks nine hours of emotional testimony

DENVER — The battle over Colorado’s death penalty began in earnest Tuesday, when a measure to repeal capital punishment in the state drew nine hours of emotional testimony during the bill’s first hearing before lawmakers.

Finally, around 11 p.m., the House Judiciary Committee, at the sponsor’s request, decided to postpone a vote on House Bill 1264, which is still expected to be approved and eventually move to the full House for debate.

The committee’s chairman, Rep. Daniel Kagan, D-Denver, also told reporters the decision to put off the vote made sense because lawmakers shouldn’t be deciding such a weighty issue when they’re exhausted from such a long day of debate.

All afternoon and late into the evening, dozens of people, on both sides of the issue, told compelling personal stories, including Robert Dewey, who was exonerated of a murder charge last year after serving 18 years in prison.

“They talked about the death penalty for my case,” Dewey told the House Judiciary Committee. “If that would have happened, I’d have probably died already for a crime I didn’t do.”

Randy Steidl, who served 12 years including six on death row for a murder DNA later proved he didn’t commit, echoed Dewey’s argument that the death sentence is irreversible and also said that he found life in prison without parole to be a tougher sentence to serve than death.

“Life without parole is a far harsher sentence. It’s an appropriate sentence,” Steidl testified. “And you don’t run the risk of executing an innocent person. You can release an innocent man from prison, but you cannot release him from the grave.”

But their powerful testimony was countered by Maisha Fields, the sister of Javad Marshall Fields, who was murdered by two of the three men who now sit on Colorado’s death row.

“They were found guilty not erroneously, not because they were black, not because of their age, but because of their choices,” said Fields, pushing back at the bill sponsor, Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, who cited statistics showing that the bill is disproportionately applied to black defendants.

Morrisey: “I haven’t sought death penalty, but I’ve used it”

The families of murder victims Kenia Monge and Neveah Gallegos weren’t at the Capitol to testify, but Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrisey cited their cases in support of keeping the death penalty.

“I haven’t sought the death penalty in eight years, but I’ve used it,” Morrisey told FOX31, explaining that in both cases, the killer, already in custody, offered to give up information about where he buried his victims if prosecutors agreed to take the option of the death penalty off the table.

“We found those bodies because of the death penalty,” Morrisey said. “It was the death penalty than enabled us to give those families decent burials.”

Morrisey made it clear his office doesn’t use the death penalty to coerce confessions our information from defendants.

Legislation introduced late

FOX31 Denver was first to report that Democrats were introducing legislation to repeal the death penalty, House Bill 1264, last Friday, just as the most controversial gun control measures received their final votes and headed to Gov. John Hickenlooper’s desk.

Reps. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, and Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, are the prime sponsors of the bill.

On Monday, Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, announced that she’ll be offering a competing measure to refer the decision on abolishing the death penalty to Colorado voters, the Denver Post was first to report.

“I think the citizens of Colorado deserve to be heard on this topic,” Fields told FOX31 Denver Tuesday. “I think it is a tool that our justice system needs. It is the ultimate sanction that someone can render if someone has done such a heinous crime.”

Fields fought for that sentence for the two men, Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray, who were both convicted in the 2005 murder of her son, Javad Marshall Fields, and his girlfriend, Vivian Wolfe.

Repeal would not impact current death sentences

The repeal proposed by Levy and Melton would not affect the sentences of those two men or Nathan Dunlap, the Chuck E. Cheese killer who could be executed later this year.

It would only apply to crimes committed after the law takes effect in July 2013; as such, it would also allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty in the case of suspected Aurora theater shooter James Holmes, who is awaiting trial in Arapahoe County.

Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler, whose office is prosecuting Holmes, also testified against the repeal.

Death penalty seldom used in Colorado

Colorado’s death penalty is used infrequently, especially compared to Texas — something both sides used to frame their arguments.

“We use it incredibly judiciously,” said House Minority Leader Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs. “There is no doubt about the guilt of the three people on death row. They commited truly heinous crimes.

“If we lived in Texas or Oklahoma or California where they have hundreds of people on death row, I think maybe I would think about this issue differently.”

Others said Colorado’s rare usage of capital punishment isn’t enough to justify the expense borne by the state in fending off repeated appeals from death row inmates, or the time it takes to see a death penalty case to its conclusion.

“It takes years to resolve the case, years which can take an extreme emotional toll on the grieving families of the victim by failing to provide closure,” said Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett.

Priola among Republicans backing repeal

Some Republicans are likely to support the legislation, mostly for religious reasons, FOX31 Denver has confirmed.

“For me, it’s religious conviction. I’m a practicing Catholic and I understand what the Church teaches on the issue,” said Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson. “Secondly, if you look at statistics, it’s arbitrary and capricious and it’s time we look at repealing it.

“It costs about a million dollars a year and it tends to be used mostly on the minority population.”

According to Priola, a few other Republicans are likely to support the bill on religious grounds.

“Catholics are very pro-life and that means from conception until death,” he said.

Priola also said cases like that of Troy Davis, who was executed in 2011 despite lingering questions about his murder conviction and, ultimately, his guilt, make him worry about the execution of the innocent.

“There are people now who, we find out from DNA, go to prison and sit on death row and had no part in those crimes,” Priola said. “That’s another part that gives me pause.”