By Tali Juliano
On Monday, Jan. 27, the Senate Judiciary Committee of Colorado began to hear testimony for a bill, the passage of which would end the death penalty in the state. Since 2007, death penalty repeal bills have failed five times, with a narrow defeat in 2019. However, this year, it appears that the bill is likely to pass with bipartisan support.
The Colorado College community should both be aware and watching closely as this historic voting takes place. Through my personal experience tabling for the ACLU last summer, too many times to count Colorado voters came up to our booth astonished that Colorado still had the death penalty on its books. I have heard this sentiment from CC students as well. In general, the assumption is that Colorado is a liberal state, so it must not have the death penalty. It seems that this lack of awareness is flowing over into this vote.
Though Colorado has not put anyone to death since 1997, three men still sit on death row, according to Michael Radlet’s 2017 history of the Colorado death penalty. Significantly, all three men are black, despite the fact that only 4% of the Colorado population identify as black. Further, all three men are from the same high school in Aurora, the city in Colorado with the highest percent non-white population. To many people’s surprise, neither the Aurora movie theater shooter nor the Planned Parenthood shooter received the death penalty due to insanity defenses. Notably, the defense attorney for Nathan Dunlap, one of the men on death row, declined to pursue a similar insanity defense in his case, even though he has been treated for severe bipolar disorder in prison.
With the few times a death sentence is given in Colorado, it is currently operating with immense irregularity that clearly lands on the underprivileged few. Of the 500 first-degree murder cases that were eligible for the death penalty between 1999 and 2010, Marceau, Kamin and Foglia reported in 2013 that this sentence was only pursued all the way through sentencing in 1% of cases. Furthermore, between 1980 and 2010, Radelet writes that 36 murders occurred with either three or more victims or particularly gruesome circumstances. Only one person, Nathan Dunlap, is sentenced to die for this crime. Thus, the fact that this nearly statistically impossible outcome of a death sentence occurred only three times and only against black defendants is astonishing.
With the vote beginning in the Colorado Senate, our state has an opportunity to end this harmful system of inequity and violence, but those of us who reside here must be paying attention. The death penalty and its effects are no small matter.
This article is just an introductory rundown of the racial inequities of the Colorado death penalty. If you are interested in learning more, Michael Radelet will be speaking on campus next Wednesday, Feb. 5, after class. Radelet is an expert on the Colorado death penalty and will be providing more of a historical background next week.