Tuesday, 13 February 2007
A mythical penalty
Abolition of death sentence would only recognize reality
State lawmakers held a phony debate at the Capitol last week over whether to abolish Colorado's death penalty.
Some lawmakers and witnesses spoke in favor of House Bill 1094, others spoke against.
Some contended that abolishing the death penalty would be such a big deal that voters should have the last word by way of a referendum.
But the debate was surreal, for the following reason: For all practical purposes, the death penalty already has been abolished here. In the past 40 years, since 1967, there has been exactly one execution, and that was 10 years ago.
In other words, it would hardly be a big deal to abolish the death penalty in statute. It would merely recognize that for all practical purposes the penalty no longer exists in any meaningful sense at all.
Why has there been only one execution over four decades?
Because Colorado juries are remarkably reluctant to invoke the penalty - and so prosecutors are reluctant to pursue it.
• Because the U.S. Supreme Court on several occasions has changed the rules of the game, forcing the legislature to rewrite the law while sparing convicted killers. The last time this occurred was 2003, when death sentences for three vicious murderers were ruled invalid.
• Finally, because the legal process permits a dizzying number of appeals even for someone whose guilt is not remotely in doubt. Prosecutors could possess an uncontested film of a killer torturing and murdering his victim, and he'd still be able to string out the appeals process for years.
One of the two remaining men on death row today committed his crimes in 1993. Yet Nathan Dunlap's conviction is still under appeal.
Those three reasons are not going to disappear. Juries will remain wary of the death penalty; the Supreme Court will remain inconstant; and courts will continue to indulge endless appeals. That means capital punishment in Colorado will continue to be a largely mythical penalty that does little except waste millions of dollars in legal expenses.
It's time to abolish the death penalty in statute since its unofficial demise occurred many years ago.
Unfortunately, HB 1094, which passed out of the Judiciary Committee last week, oddly links the end of the death penalty to creation of a "cold case unit" in the Colorado bureau of investigation. Those two propositions should be handled separately. If that can still be done, lawmakers should end the waste, frustration and pretense of the present law and give the death penalty its permanent burial.