By Berry Phillips

Quoting a death penalty protester in Florida, Michael Radelet said, “I’m not here to change the world, I’m here to make sure the world doesn’t change me.”  

On Wednesday, Feb. 5, professor and chairman of the Department of Sociology at University of Colorado at Boulder Michael Radelet gave a talk in Gates Common Room. Presented by the Law Society of Colorado College, the talk concerned the history of the death penalty in Colorado — about which Radelet published a book in 2017 — and a bill recently brought under consideration by the Colorado Legislature entitled “Repeal the Death Penalty.” With its Jan. 31 passage in the Colorado Senate, the bill is expected to receive support in the upcoming Colorado House of Representatives vote and from Gov. Jared Polis. The abolition of capital punishment in the state may be on the horizon.

Along with anecdotes about working on Ted Bundy’s death penalty case for 10 years and national statistics regarding the death penalty, Radelet shared information on the history of the death penalty in Colorado and insight on the legislation surrounding the issue.

The first recorded execution in Colorado took place in Denver in 1859. In Colorado, executions were a community entertainment phenomenon during the 1800s — nearly 20,000 Coloradans showed up for one Denver execution in 1887.

This upcoming vote, if it passes, will not be the first time Colorado has abolished the death penalty. In 1897, Colorado ended the death penalty, but it was reinstated only four years later in an effort to deter lynching in the state. The U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty nationally in 1972, but Colorado, like many other states, reinstated the death penalty in 1977. Only one person has been executed in Colorado since the reinstatement. 

The latest push to abolish the death penalty began in 2009 with efforts from The Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons, who advocate for a greater focus on solving cold cases — as articulated by their slogan, “Justice before Vengeance.” Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper placed a moratorium on executions in 2013. Now, a similar moratorium exists in three other states: Oregon, Pennsylvania, and California.

Radelet is hopeful that the repeal will be passed by the Colorado House in the coming weeks. When asked by an audience member what we can do, and if calling your representatives makes a difference, Radelet said we should get the hard conversations going to sow the seeds for the future. 

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