For Colorado Lawmaker, Death Penalty Debate Personal
DENVER (AP) – Rep. Rhonda Fields stood before her colleagues recently and told them about her dead son.
He would have turned 30 that day.
“I would want to believe that he would have two kids … ” Fields said.
“Happy birthday, Javad,” she added.
Fields represents one of the most prominent voices of opposition to her fellow Democrats’ expected push to repeal the death-penalty in Colorado this session, joining a handful of other states around the nation recently that have banned capital punishment.
“There are some crimes,” she said, “that are so heinous that having the death penalty as an option should be something that we retain.”
No one in state government has a more emotional connection to the issue than the Aurora Democrat.
Two of the three men on death row in Colorado are there after being convicted of killing her son and his fiancee. Their deaths in 2005 launched her political career.
Fields also represents the Denver suburb where 12 people were killed and dozens more were wounded in last summer’s movie theater shooting rampage, a case death penalty supporters likely will highlight in support of their position.
And in a grim coincidence, all three men on death row are from Aurora and attended the same high school.
“That it is kind of like lightning striking,” said Dan Schoen, executive director of Colorado Criminal Defense Bar.
All three death row inmates also are black, a point those who want to repeal capital punishment, like Schoen’s group, could seize upon to bolster their case.
Death penalty opponents argue that the punishment – seldom used in Colorado – doesn’t deter violent crimes and that it disproportionately affects minorities and low-income defendants.
Those who support the use of capital punishment say death sentences are handed down judiciously.
There are “three guys on death row that belong there, and I don’t think that’s disputed at all,” said Republican House Leader Mark Waller.
Two of those three, Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray, were found guilty of gunning down Fields’ son and Vivian Wolfe in their car as they idled at an intersection. Prosecutors say Javad Fields was targeted because he planned to testify against the men in a homicide case.
The other, Nathan Dunlap, was convicted of killing four people at a Chuck E. Cheese’s in Aurora in 1993.
As it stands, Colorado is among 34 states that allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty.
Executions in the state are rare. The last time an inmate was put to death in Colorado was 1997, the only use of capital punishment in the last 45 years, according to Michael Radelet, a University of Colorado professor and expert on death penalty trends.
By comparison, Texas executed 15 inmates in 2012, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, an anti-capital punishment group.
Waller said his party will fight repeal efforts and criticized Democrats by saying it’s insensitive of them to weigh such a proposal while Fields is in the chamber.
“It’s almost like there’s no recognition or credibility given to her position,” he said. “It’s kind of sad.”
For her part, Fields opposes repeal but says it should be up to voters to decide, not legislators. She plans to introduce a counter-proposal that would put the question on the 2014 ballot.
Some prosecutors, including Adams County District Attorney Dave Young, also would prefer that option. Young began his career more than 20 years ago opposing the death penalty, before getting called to the horrific crime scenes that changed his mind.
“There’s evil out in the world,” he said.
Colorado lawmakers last took on with the issue in a failed repeal attempt in 2009.
A bill has not been introduced this year, but lawmakers working behind the scenes have said they have the votes to pass a proposal. The bill they are discussing would affect only future cases and would not change the sentence of those currently on death row.
It’s unclear, however, whether Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper would sign the bill if it reached his desk. He indicated in a December interview with The Associated Press that he was torn on the subject.
“I wrestle with this, right now, on a pretty much daily basis,” he said.
The nation also has struggled with the issue. Illinois, New Mexico and New Jersey have repealed the death penalty in recent years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Last year, Connecticut voters did away with capital punishment, while a similar ballot measure failed in California.
Aside from Colorado, at least seven states are considering legislation to repeal the death penalty this year, a typical number for an issue that comes up regularly around the nation, said Rich Williams, a policy specialists with NCSL.
Colorado Democratic Rep. Claire Levy said she recognizes that some may wonder about the timing of the debate and that emotions are “running high” in the aftermath of the theater shooting.
Levy, one of the lawmakers in the House working on the proposed repeal and one of the expected sponsors, said she asked herself whether this session was the right time to take up the issue and thought, “Well, when can I be assured that we won’t have some terrible tragedy that will get in the way of taking this issue on?”
She added, “I concluded you can’t time these things.”
Levy said Fields’ personal connection makes the issue particularly sensitive.
“That makes it very hard,” she said. But she added “… it doesn’t to me diminish the arguments against the death penalty.”
The bill is expected to be introduced in the Senate first, and Fields stands firm in her opposition.
“I think about my loss every day,” Fields said, “and what I can do to be an advocate and a champion for other crime victims, and what I can do to make our community a safer and brighter place.”
– By Ivan Moreno, AP Writer
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