DENVER (AP) – A proposal to repeal the death penalty in Colorado failed Tuesday, as Democrats wavered in their support of the bill because of uncertainty about whether Gov. John Hickenlooper would sign the measure.
“In my heart, this is absolutely the right thing to do. I know we should repeal the death penalty,” said Democratic Rep. Lois Court.
“I also know that the governor has publicly said that he is struggling with it, and that he is not confident the people of Colorado are comfortable with this approach at this point,” she added.
The House Judiciary Committee voted 4-6, with Court and Democratic Rep. Brittany Pettersen joining four Republicans in rejecting the bill. Pettersen did not speak before her vote.
Supporters of a repeal had argued that the death penalty is applied unfairly and arbitrarily. But their plan to do away with capital punishment was thrown into question last week Hickenlooper, a fellow Democrat, signaled he might veto the bill.
“I think the governor’s statement was everything,” said Boulder Democratic Rep. Claire Levy, who sponsored the bill. “I had my votes until the governor suggested that he might not sign it.”
Lawmakers heard nine hours of testimony on the bill last week, and then delayed the vote on the proposal as the uncertainty mounted. A day after the hearings, Hickenlooper’s office said in a statement that “the governor has conflicting feelings about the death penalty. Those feelings are still unresolved.”
After Tuesday’s vote, Hickenlooper’s office said, “This is an important and difficult issue and the governor respects the decision by legislators.”
The support from Hickenlooper on the bill was crucial for Democrats in swing districts who wanted reassurance their “yes” votes would not be in vain if there was a veto.
Death penalty supporters have countered all along that capital punishment is justified for the most serious crimes.
Three men await execution in Colorado, but the bill would not have affected them, nor would it have impacted the case of the suspect in the Aurora movie theater mass shooting last summer.
Republican Rep. Bob Gardner said that believing in the death penalty doesn’t make someone uncivilized and that there is a category of crimes that represent the “worst of evils.”
“It is, however, a profoundly personal decision that each of us makes as we vote,” he said.
The debate in Colorado comes as Maryland is poised to become the 18th state to repeal the death penalty. Lawmakers there approved a bill last week, and the governor is expected to sign it. Five other states also have abolished the death penalty in recent years.
“Are we saying there is somehow less justice in those 18 states than there is here, where the death penalty is imposed so randomly?” Levy asked. She said the death penalty is about vengeance and that “vengeance fundamentally denies humanity.”
The last time Colorado executed someone was in 1997.
Nathan Dunlap is the next man in Colorado who could be executed because he’s exhausted all of his appeals. Dunlap was convicted of killing four people at an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese in 1993.
Personal stories from lawmakers made the debate over the death penalty an emotional one.
Democratic Rep. John Buckner knew Dunlap and the two other men on death row because he was the principal at the Aurora high school where each attended at different times. The three men on death row are black.
“It is inequitable. It is applied inequitably, and it disproportionately affects people that look like me,” said Buckner, who also is black.
Democratic Rep. Rhonda Fields also has a deep connection to the death penalty. Her son, Javad Marshall-Fields, was gunned down along with his fiance, Vivian Wolfe, to prevent him from testifying at a murder trial.
Two of the three men on death row – Robert Ray and Sir Mario Owens – are there because they were convicted in the shootings.
Fields supports capital punishment, but proposed a countermeasure to the repeal to send the question to voters. But her proposal was seen as leverage against the repeal bill, and she’s likely to withdraw it now.
– By Ivan Moreno, AP Writer
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