Bill to repeal Colorado’s death penalty will be introduced next week

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DENVER — Beware the Ides of March.

As if state lawmakers don’t already have their hands full with enough hot-button issues, legislation to repeal Colorado’s death penalty is set to be introduced next Friday, March 15.

Multiple sources have confirmed that the legislation will be introduced in the House and will get its initial House committee hearing the following Tuesday, March 19.

The bill will be sponsored by Reps. Claire Levy of Boulder and Jovan Melton of Aurora; on the Senate side the sponsors are Sens. Morgan Carroll of Aurora and Lucia Guzman of Denver.

Introducing the bill just past the mid-way point of the legislative session underlines the political complications surrounding the bill.

Democrats, who control both legislative chambers and the governor’s office, likely have the votes to pass the bill. The question is whether they want to add another controversial accomplishment to their 2013 resumes in a year when they’re already likely to pass several gun control proposals.

They also risk a fight with one of their own, state Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, who is a staunch supporter of the death penalty.

She fought for the death penalty for Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray, who both convicted of killing her son back in 2005.

An additional political complication is the looming execution of Nathan Dunlap, who murdered four people in a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant 19 years ago and, along with Fields’ killers, is one of three people on Colorado’s death row.

He’s scheduled to get the needle later this year.

So the bill’s introduction and potential passage means a choice for Gov. John Hickenlooper: either sign a bill repealing the death penalty or sign an execution order for Dunlap.

“The real focus here will be on Gov. Hickenlooper,” said political analyst Eric Sondermann. “Does he sign a repeal bill if it reaches his desk? My guess would be ‘yes’. Absent such a bill, does he commute Nathan Dunlap’s sentence when that last-ditch appeal reaches his office? That is a tougher, closer call.”

Passing a package of tough gun control measures and repealing the death penalty in one session is a risk for Democrats, hoping to hold legislative majorities beyond 2014, and for Hickenlooper, a political moderate thought to be a safe bet for reelection at this point but starting to face more pressure from his own party’s base and its advancement of an ambitious legislative agenda and the resulting backlash from conservatives and moderates who think it goes too far.

In Sondermann’s view, repealing the death penalty isn’t as risky as it might have been a few years ago.

“Public opinion is moving on the death penalty as it is on a number of other hot-button issues, and that opposition to this ultimate sanction is no longer the political killer that it might have been five or ten years ago,” he said.

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