Polis Opens Door To Death Penalty Reform As Democratic Repeal Plan Stalls

<p>Alex Scoville/CPR News</p>
<p><span>Gov. Jared Polis in his office Monday March 25 2019.</span></p>
Photo: Polis Colorado Matters 6 AS
Gov. Jared Polis in his office Monday March 25 2019.

Gov. Jared Polis said state lawmakers should either revoke or reform Colorado’s death penalty. He’s fine with whichever approach they decide, but he wants something done this year or next — and would consider a special session on the issue.

“It’s barely administrable as it currently is written,” Polis told Colorado Matters. “It has a requirement for a drug that we have no legal way of acquiring. It does provide for alternative methods, but those would be tied up in courts and very costly for many years.”

There are currently three men on the state’s death row.

A mostly Democratic-backed measure to abolish the death penalty, SB 19-182, has stalled because it may not have enough votes to clear the Democratic-controlled Senate. Polis has long said he would sign such a bill, yet he’s also open to keeping the death penalty on the books with changes.

Polis added he doesn’t feel capital punishment is fairly administered, is disproportionate and depends largely on where a person lives and who the prosecutor is.

“You have the Aurora theater killer, who killed a dozen people, who didn’t get [the death penalty] and somebody else who killed two people got it. So why is somebody who killed a dozen people not get it and somebody who killed two people got it,” Polis asked.

The two people who were killed are Javad Marshall Fields, and his fiancé, Vivian Wolfe. Javad’s mother is Democratic state Sen. Rhonda Fields. She said the governor clearly doesn’t understand why her son’s murderers qualified for the death penalty.

“My son’s case met all the elements of a death penalty case, so it’s not based on one, or two or 12. It’s the aggravators that are involved,” Fields said. “My son was going to be a witness in a murder trial.”

She also noted prosecutors had sought the death penalty for the Aurora theater shooter, but a jury was not able to unanimously agree to it. Fields has been critical of how some other members of her own party have failed to fully communicate with her about the death penalty repeal measure, not briefing her on details and the quick pace to move it through the legislature. There was only one day between the measure’s introduction and first public hearing.

She said the governor hasn’t engaged her either. Fields supports the state’s current law and doesn’t understand how Polis wants to “fix” it.

“I think you need to make decisions based on facts, and having a clear understanding moving forward, and I’m just not sure he has that,” Fields said.

The Democratic sponsor of the death penalty repeal measure, Sen. Angela Williams of Denver, said she would like a permanent solution.

“I appreciate the governor lending support to repealing the death penalty,” Williams said. “Unfortunately our only option is to repeal. Reform does not get to the crux of this morally driven debate. We need to decide whether it is moral for the state to continue to decide who lives and who dies?”

Read More: Colorado’s Death Penalty Repeal Is More Than Policy. For Some, It’s Personal