What Happened To The Death Penalty In Colorado?

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Gas Chamber Michael Radelet
Colorado’s second gas chamber, in which eight men died, used from 1956 to 1967.

Colorado is one of 32 U.S. states where the death penalty is legal, but it has executed only one person in the last half century. It's possible the state will never use the death penalty again, according to Michael Radelet, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, in his new book, "The History of the Death Penalty in Colorado."

Radelet recounts the first execution in 1859, as well as the most notorious cases since then, like the 1939 execution of Joe Arridy, an intellectually disabled man with an IQ of 46. Arridy was posthumously pardoned in 2011 by then-Governor Bill Ritter, a Democrat, after a public campaign to exonerate him.

Radelet also looks at Governor John Hickenlooper's 2013 decision to grant Chuck-E-Cheese murderer Nathan Dunlap a temporary reprieve from the death penalty. Dunlap killed four people and injured another at the Aurora restaurant in 1993 and was sentenced to death. Critics say the governor punted on his decision, which will postpone any action until Hickenlooper leaves office.

Radelet spoke with Colorado Matters host Andrea Dukakis.

Read an excerpt:

At the time of this writing…, Colorado’s death penalty had become such a trivial component of the state’s criminal justice system that it is now quite possible that we will never see another execution in the state.  After all, [today] there [are] only three inmates on death row in Cañon City, and the only one who is anywhere close to being put to death is Nathan Dunlap, convicted of killing four people in an Aurora restaurant in 1993.  In 2013 his execution was indefinitely halted by Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, a move that effectively imposed a moratorium on all executions in the state.  For murders committed between January 1, 2000 and December 31, 2015, prosecutors sought the death penalty against 18 men and one woman (plus against one of those men a second time).  In both 2009 and again in 2013, the Colorado General Assembly came close to passing abolition bills.  Its members may do so again in the near future, a current or future governor may commute all the death sentences to prison terms with a stroke of the pen, or the courts could easily tinker with these sentences, rendering Colorado’s executioner permanently unemployed.  This book [covers] the history of Colorado’s struggles with the death penalty, but with the death penalty still legally permissible, the final chapter of this history has not yet been written. (pages 3-4)

Reprinted with Permission from Michael Radelet.