The Denver Post
First they scored with guns, then civil unions. Now, Colorado's Democratic lawmakers are ready to go for a hot-button-issue hat trick: repealing the state's death penalty.
It's been tried before — the 2009 effort died by one vote. But when death penalty opponents introduce legislation this time, as they plan to soon, they will employ a revamped strategy that relies less on arguments of morality and compassion than on dollars-and-cents and fairness. And they will call on a strange-bedfellows collection of voices, including prosecutors and victims' families, to carry their message.
People like Bob Autobee.
In 2002, Autobee's son, Eric Autobee, was murdered by an inmate at the Limon prison where he worked.
Autobee was a corrections officer himself, and a self-described tough-on-crime guy. But as the effort to have his son's killer join the three others on Colorado's death row dragged on, Autobee said he soured on the death penalty, so much so that he has become a spokesman for anti-death-penalty forces.Autobee said that when prosecutors initially wanted the death penalty for Edward Montour, "I said, 'Sure that seems like justice.' "
Mountour was convicted of killing Jason Autobee, and a judge sentenced him to death. That sentence was overturned; a higher court ruled only a jury could impose death. By last August, Bob and Lola Autobee wrote to then-District Attorney Carol Chambers that they were exhausted and no longer wanted to be involved in the case.
"It is a helpless feeling to see the constant continuance of court proceedings and hearings and the wasteful use of taxpayer money in trying a case that shows no true end in sight . . ." they wrote.
Now, Bob Autobee said he is a reluctant voice for death penalty foes. "I want to get away from this issue and go on with my life but I have to do what's right for my son."
Hearings on Montour's future continue; prosecutors continue seeking the death penalty.
In a statement released by his office, District Attorney George Brauchler, Chambers' successor, said: "While all murders are tragic, some are truly heinous. Execution should remain a potential sentence for the very most culpable, calculated, and cold-blooded killers."
In their current effort, Colorado Democrats find hope in the fact that Gov. John Hickenlooper's pro-death-penalty stance has wavered lately. They also will rely on the Democratic majority that put through gun restrictions and civil unions.
But one key Democrat in the gun-control debate isn't expected to line up with the party this time.
The killers of Rep. Rhonda Fields' son, Javad Marshall-Fields, and his fiancée, Vivian Wolfe, are two of the three men now on Colorado's death row. The couple was killed because they were set to testify in another murder case.
Rhonda Fields declined to comment for this story. In December she told The Denver Post she wants the death penalty question put to voters. "I believe that society must be protected, and the voters should decide the fate of capital punishment," she said.
Sen. Lucia Guzman, a Denver Democrat who will sponsor the Senate version of the repeal bill, also experienced the murder of a family member. Her father was 73 when he was shot during a robbery at a gas station where he worked.
Guzman said the bill won't make exceptions for certain types of victims, and won't be retroactive. She also said she disagrees with Fields on who should decide the issue. "We're the elected trustees of this state and we should perform our duties to the best of our abilities," she said.
In a December Denver Post poll, 52 percent of respondents said they would abolish the death penalty; 43 percent would keep it, and 5 percent were unsure.
Since 2007, five states have abolished the death penalty. Maryland lawmakers are considering the same.
While tactics used by death penalty opponents shift, supporters' arguments don't waver.
In a January commentary in The Colorado Observer, Rep. Frank McNulty, R- Highlands Ranch, summed it up: ". . . the fear of losing one's own life if one takes another life does save lives. The fear of death prevents future murder victims."
Even death penalty opponents concede Colorado is no Texas. Gary Davis, put to death in 1997 for kidnapping, raping and murdering a Byers wife and mother, was the last person executed in the state.
A study last year by the University of Denver law school — which was commissioned by Edward Montour's attorneys — found that while the death penalty was an option in 92 percent of Colorado's first-degree murders between 1999 and 2010, it was sought only 3 percent of the time. Death was the ultimate sentence in only 0.6 percent of cases.
But that apparent arbitrariness is part of the problem, said Lisa Cisneros, of Coloradans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
She pointed out that all three men currently on Colorado's death row are African-American and all were sent there by juries in Arapahoe County, which is part of the 18th Judicial District. If Edward Montour, who is Hispanic, joins them, he would be the fourth from the 18th District.
Brauchler, through a spokeswoman declined to comment on that.
As the legislature prepares to debate the issue, Brauchler must decide whether to ask a jury to make James Holmes, accused in the Aurora theater shootings, the fifth.
Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?
Our chief areas of interest include drug policy reform, women in prison, racial injustice, the impact of incarceration on children and families, the problems associated with re-entry and stopping the practice of using private prisons in our state.
If you would like to be involved please go to our website and become a member.
Thursday, March 14, 2013
The Denver Post