Race and place contribute to Colorado Death Penalty Trials, study finds

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Photo: Lethal Injection Table Death penalty (AP)
This Sept. 24, 1997 file photo shows the table on which the convicted murderer Gary Lee Davis was executed in the Colorado State Penitentiary east of Canon City, Colo.

The death penalty is rarely used in Colorado, but a study of about 500 recent prosecutions reveals a bias in when its pursued.

A team from the University of Denver analyzed prosecutions from 1999-2010 in the state and found that a defendant's race and the place the crime is committed are factors in whether death penalty cases are pursued.

Specifically, researchers found that even when controlling for the severity and frequency of crimes, prosecutors in the 18th Judicial District, which includes Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln Counties, are more likely to seek the death penalty than their counterparts in Colorado's other 21 judicial districts.

The researchers also found that non-white people were more likely to be the subjects of death penalty prosecutions. "The odds of a prosecutor seeking death are 5.8 times higher against minority defendants than against white defendants after taking the heinousness of the murders into account," according to the researchers.

Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner discussed the findings with two authors, Scott Phillips, who teaches sociology and criminology, and Sam Kamin, who teaches law. Justin Marceau of DU and Meg Beardsley also contributed to the study.