Colorado Senate Won’t Debate Death Penalty Repeal Bill This Session

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Sen. Julie Gonzales sits in a Finance Committee meeting, March 5, 2019.
Photo: COLEG 2019 | Sen. Julie Gonzales - KBeaty
Sen. Julie Gonzales sits in a Finance Committee meeting, March 5, 2019.

Democrats in the state legislature are abandoning their effort to abolish the death penalty, at least for this year.

The Senate was supposed to debate the bill Tuesday morning. But instead, Democratic sponsor Sen. Julie Gonzales came to the mic to ask for it to be postponed for the remainder of the legislative session.

“I’m going to give SB-182 a dignified death. Not a torturous one,” Gonzales tearfully told her colleagues. “I ask that this bill be laid over because I believe wholeheartedly that the way in which we treat each other through this process is as important as the policy itself. So when this bill comes back next session, there will be nothing left to hide behind, except this abhorrent, terrible practice.”

Opponents of the death penalty repeal effort have complained in part about the legislative process behind the bill. The measure was rushed to its first hearing less than a week after being introduced. However, since then, it has languished for almost a month as the two sides have wrangled behind the scenes.

The bill was mainly championed by Democrats, but the issue split the caucus. Two leading Democratic lawmakers who lost children to violence are strong advocates for keeping the penalty.

Sen. Rhonda Fields’ son and his fiance were killed before he could testify in a murder case. The men responsible are now on Colorado’s death row. Shortly after the bill’s first hearing, she described the situation as a “sucker punch” for her and other crime victims. She said the speed with which the bill was moving was meant to suppress their voices in the process.

In her speech Tuesday, Gonzales acknowledged those concerns. But also noted that she too, has a connection to deadly violence. Her father-in-law was murdered, and the man suspected in the crime has never been prosecuted.

“Colleagues, I tell you this story because as I listened to the testimonies in our Judiciary Committee from victims’ family members, I heard that same grief, pain, and rage that I have heard in my own family,” Gonzales told her colleagues. “I had to ask myself, in the event that the man who murdered my father-in-law were ever brought to justice, whether I myself could support the death penalty as punishment. The answer simply is no.”

Proponents of the death penalty celebrated the decision to abandon the bill. District Attorney George Brauchler, who unsuccessfully sought the death penalty for the Aurora theater shooter, called on the legislature to instead focus on putting the question to voters and letting them decide. It’s a position shared by many opponents of the repeal bill.

“The people of Colorado have a right to speak on this issue,” said Sen. Owen Hill, a Republican from Colorado Springs, in a statement. “Whether or not you support or oppose the death penalty, it is important to recognize the emotional weight that this issue carries to many in our state. I’m thankful that the Senate recognized this and decided to postpone this debate until we can conduct a deliberative process with victims, advocates, activists, and legal professionals together to reach a conclusion that includes all voices.”

There are three men currently sitting on Colorado’s death row.