Thursday, 8 February 2007

First step taken to kill death penalty

February 8, 2007


First step taken to kill death penalty

By MIKE SACCONE, The Daily Sentinel

Lawmakers gave their initial approval Wednesday evening to a bill that would
abolish Colorado's death penalty, despite the outcry of Colorado's top law
enforcement officials, including Attorney General John Suthers.

In a 7-4 vote, the House Judiciary Committee approved a bill by Rep. Paul
Weissmann, D-Louisville, that would use the funds normally spent on death
penalty cases' mandatory appeals to create and sustain a "Cold Case Unit" at
the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.

The newly christened unit would help local law enforcement agencies solve
murders that have languished for more than a year.

Shortly before the vote, passing Weissmann's bill to the House
Appropriations Committee, Rep. Debbie Stafford, R-Aurora, said lawmakers
needed to make tough choices, and funding cold-case investigations was a
cause worthy of losing the death penalty.

Stafford broke from her Republican peers, saying, after seven years of
working on criminal justice issues, it is time to "do something

" She said it is time to balance the Legislature's "tough on
crime" stance with taking a new approach to criminal justice.

The votes of Stafford and her Democratic colleagues followed a vigorous,
four-hour debate between death-penalty advocates, including the state's top
law enforcement officials, and nearly two dozen family members of cold-case

Suthers, who provided the day's most pointed attack on Weissmann's bill,
said the death penalty is necessary for Colorado to confront the most
serious crimes, including acts of terrorism, and deter other serious crimes.

"On the basis of 30 years of experience as a lawyer, I have come to the
conclusion that there are crimes for which life in prison is not an
appropriate response," Suthers said.

He said even if the death penalty is used sparingly, it needs to exist for
prosecutors to deal with extreme scenarios, such as the killing of prison
guards or acts of terrorism.

Suthers said he resents Weissmann's framing of the death penalty and
cold-case-investigation funding as an "either-or" proposition.

Don Quick, district attorney for the 17th Judicial District and president of
Colorado District Attorney's Council, said the abolition of the death
penalty is important enough to be dealt with as its own issue.

"You ought to decide up or down on the issue," Quick said.

Quick said if cold cases are that important, lawmakers should find the money
divorced from the death penalty.

Over their objections, the death penalty took its first steps toward
elimination in Colorado.

According to the Colorado Department of Corrections, it costs the state more
than $37,000 a year to house inmates at the Colorado State Penitentiary,
where death-row inmates are held.

Cheryl Ahumada, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, said her
agency does not maintain statistics specific to death-row costs.

Two men are currently sitting on death row in Colorado, 39-year-old Edward
Montour, convicted in 2003 for murdering a corrections officer, and
32-year-old Nathan Dunlap, convicted in 1996 for the murder of four
employees at an Aurora Chuck E Cheese's restaurant.

Weissmann's bill would not commute the sentences of Montour and Dunlap.

Colorado has executed one person since the Colorado General Assembly
reinstated the death penalty in 1984: 53-year-old Gary Lee Davis, on Oct.
13, 1997.

According to the Department of Corrections, death-row inmates wait an
average of 10 years between their convictions and executions because of
mandatory appeals.

Richard Owen Drake was the last man sentenced to death in Mesa County, after
he was convicted in 1983 for the stabbing death of his wife.

Drake's sentence was overturned in 1988 after the Colorado Supreme Court
ruled the trial court judge incorrectly instructed the jury.

Local defense attorney Steve Laiche said the death penalty is so expensive
because the "legal system doesn't really want to put anybody to death."

Laiche, who successfully prosecuted five death-penalty cases while serving
as a district attorney in Louisiana, said Colorado, like other states, has a
complex series of automatic appeals in addition to federal legal challenges
that can effectively stay an execution for more than a decade.

"They want to make sure that everything is correct, because they don't want
to have somebody come back and look at them later on and say 'you've
executed an innocent person,' " Laiche said.

Even with these projected savings of Weissmann's bill, totaling more than
$232,000 over the next two years, Mesa County District Attorney Pete
Hautzinger said there is little reason to overturn the death penalty from a
Mesa County perspective.

"I think there is something of a disconnect in this legislation," Hautzinger
said. "It's not inherently obvious to me that inordinate dollars are being
wasted on death-penalty cases that should be funneled into cold-case
investigations in my jurisdiction."

Lt. Greg Assenmacher of the Grand Junction Police Department said his agency
currently has eight unsolved homicides dating back to 1964.

Hautzinger said other local law enforcement agencies have relatively few
unsolved homicide cases.

"To the extent that death-penalty cases in Colorado can be considered to be
a waste of resources," Hautzinger said, "I think a lot more of that goes to
the ideological nature of the Colorado publicdefender's office that makes
values-based decisions to devote resources into defending death-penalty

Hautzinger said the death penalty has a place in prosecutors' tool belts to
confront crimes "so heinous or outside the bounds of what society can

He said the Colorado public defender system's aggressive defense of
death-penalty cases has kept an appropriate check on abuse of the death

"The fact that Colorado has such a strong, ideologically-driven public
defender system has served as a very effective check on death-penalty cases
in this jurisdiction," Hautzinger said. "No one can say the death penalty
has been abused over last 30 years."


Source : The Daily Sentinel

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