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July 23, 2020

Colorado Abolishes the Death Penalty, Governor Commutes Sentences of Death Row Prisoners

The Colorado State Capitol building, where Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed SB 20-100 to repeal the state's death penalty.

The Colorado State Capitol building, where Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed SB 20-100 to repeal the state's death penalty.

© User: Greg O'Beirne / Wikimedia Commons / (CC BY 2.5)

On March 23, 2020, Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed Senate Bill 20-100, repealing the state’s death penalty. The repeal makes Colorado the 22nd U.S. state, plus the District of Columbia, to remove the death sentence as an available penalty. Since reinstating the death penalty in 1975 following the decision in Furman v. Georgia, Colorado has executed just one person, Gary Davis, in 1997. The law, which goes into effect July 1, passed the Democrat-controlled legislature with bipartisan support in February and was sent to the governor’s desk shortly before lawmakers suspended their legislative session. As discussed in the Project’s Spring 2020 newsletter, attempts to pass similar legislation have been ongoing since 2009, but each effort narrowly failed in years prior. In 2018, it was widely expected that a repeal bill would pass after Democrats retook full control of the state government, but the effort failed as a result of internal party division.

The 2020 law does not apply retroactively to prisoners already sentenced to death or to those who were charged with capital offenses prior to the signing. However, the same day the bill was signed, Governor Polis commuted the sentences of the state’s three death row prisoners, Robert Ray, Sir Mario Owens and Nathan Dunlap. The three men will now serve life in prison without the possibility of parole. Governor Polis previously indicated he would likely commute the three sentences if the legislature passed the death penalty repeal legislation. In a statement announcing the commutations, Governor Polis explained, “[c]ommutations are typically granted to reflect evidence of extraordinary change in the offender. That is not why I am commuting these sentences . . ..” Rather, Governor Polis indicated that the commutations were “consistent with the abolition of the death penalty in the state of Colorado and consistent with the recognition that the death penalty cannot be, and never has been, administered equitably in the state of Colorado.”

The three cases were central to the state’s death penalty debate throughout the years. Two of the men on Colorado’s death row, Robert Ray and Sir Mario Owens, were convicted of killing Javad Fields and his fiancée, Vivian Wolfe. Fields was the son of Colorado Democratic Senator Rhonda Fields. Leading up to the 2020 repeal and in years prior, Senator Fields was a vocal opponent of legislative attempts to eliminate capital punishment in the state. Senator Fields also opposed the commutations. Eighteenth Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler, the elected attorney for the district where all three of the men had been prosecuted, also rebuked the commutations, suggesting that they were timed to occur in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic so that they would not receive attention.

Two capital trials were pending in the state when the repeal bill was signed into law. Fourth Judicial District Attorney Daniel May indicated that he still planned to seek the death penalty in a trial scheduled to begin on July 17, despite Governor Polis’ commutations. However, on April 14, he announced his decision to withdraw the death penalty as an option in the case, pointing to the likelihood that the governor would “override” any death sentence in his withdrawal notice. Prosecutors in the second case filed a motion to withdraw the death penalty from consideration a week after Governor Polis’ commutations. Seventeenth Judicial District Attorney David Young’s office also cited the commutations in the motion, explaining that pursuing the death penalty would be unproductive.