OK, OK, to be technical exceedingly technical that's not true. On Oct. 13, 1997, convicted murderer Gary Lee Davis was executed by lethal injection. But before Davis, no one had been put to death in Colorado since 1967. Currently, two convicted murderers are on death row, but no date with the needle is in sight.
As Colorado public defender Doug Wilson notes, "Getting a death-penalty verdict is like getting struck by lightning."
Over the same period of time, an estimated 1,200 murders have gone unsolved in Colorado. Which means, logically, there are as many as 1,200 murderers out there, walking around with you and me. Assuming some might have committed multiple murders and others have died or left the state, we're still left with about one for about every 3,500 adults (18 or older) in Colorado. The number is growing at a clip of 40 every year.
Colorado has spent an estimated $40.5 million in death-penalty appeals and other legal maneuvering in fruitless death-penalty cases in the nine-plus years since Davis was executed. But the state has no program in place to catch the bad guys still out there.
That is worth repeating. Colorado has no organized network to investigate unsolved murders. Colorado Springs, for that matter, has no formal cold-case unit, stocked and funded with active-duty detectives charged to solve the most heinous of crimes.
Which brings us to state Rep. Paul Weissmann, D-Louisville. He has put together a clever proposal that has death-penalty advocates practically gnashing their teeth. Weissmann wants to abolish capital punishment in Colorado and to divert $650,000 in death-penalty savings to establish a cold-case unit with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.
"Sometimes in the process of government, you have a convergence of ideas," was the way that Weissmann put it to the House Judiciary Committee last week. "We can never resolve the moral question over an eye for an eye, but what I do have is an answer to how we can save money."
A diverse and compelling group of supporters spent several hours testifying in favor of Weissmann's plan. Public defender Wilson stood strong with the brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and friends of murder victims. Several expressed their anger at an unjust system, describing how the person they cared about was quickly forgotten when someone richer or more famous was slain. Some said they might support the death penalty, but really, they would prefer the person responsible be caught.
Richard Randall, legislative director of the Libertarian Party of Colorado (not the longtime Colorado Springs media personality) offered this: "Our own system is providing vengeance, not justice." Fr. Bill Carmody, a Colorado Springs Catholic priest, joined with Cathryn Hazouri, executive director of ACLU of Colorado, and a group of Colorado Quakers in support.
A predictable trio of prosecutors spoke forcefully in opposition. Colorado Attorney General John Suthers waxed forcefully about the death penalty's importance in deterring crime. Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey and Adams County District Attorney Don Quick echoed Suthers. It was a brave position to take, in the midst of a roomful of grieving observers, many of them carrying photographs of their murdered loved ones.
Four Republicans, including Bob Gardner (Colorado Springs) and Amy Stephens (Monument), opposed the idea. Gardner said capital punishment should have nothing to do with cold-case cash. Stephens suggested the issue should be put to a vote of the people, to which Rep. Terrence Carroll, D-Denver, had this to say: "We're elected for a reason."
Then the committee did something astounding: A majority actually approved Weissmann's bill.
"It is time," said Rep. Debbie Stafford, R-Aurora, "to do some things differently than we've been doing. We have taken a position of being tough on crime, without coming in on the backside. It's time we shake up our system."
Weissmann acknowledges his proposal ultimately has little chance of actually making it into law. ("Politically, it will make people nervous," he points out.)
But for a few hours last week, common sense prevailed.
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