Colorado Governor Spares Last Inmates on Death Row

DENVER (CN) – Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed a bill Monday repealing the state’s death penalty and commuting sentences for the last three men on death row to life in prison without parole.

“My decision today is not a commentary on the moral or ethical implications of the death penalty in our society; rather it is a reflection of current law in Colorado, where the death penalty has been abolished,” Polis said in a statement.

The Federal Correctional Complex in Florence, Colo., is a facility so secure, so remote and so austere that it has been called the “Alcatraz of the Rockies.” (Bureau of Prisons image)

Nathan Dunlap, 44, was sentenced to death in 1996 after he was convicted of killing eight people in an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese in 1993. Now, he will live out the rest of days in prison.

Robert Ray, 33, and Sir Mario Owens were both sentenced to death for killing witnesses in 2004 and 2005 in a separate murder case against Ray. Both men are now sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The Colorado House of Representatives voted 38-27 to repeal the death penalty in February, making it the 22nd state to remove the sentence from the books.

According to a 2019 Gallup Poll, 60% of Americans prefer life imprisonment compared to 36% who support the death penalty.

Since its introduction on Jan. 14, the bill quickly passed through the Democrat-stacked statehouse, but not without emotional debate.

Proponents of the measure argued that the state should not be taking lives. Opponents argued that the death sentence was needed to give prosecutors leverage. Both sides made an argument for cost – either that the cost of appealing a death sentence is more expensive than life in prison or that the state should not bear the cost of supporting life imprisonment sentences.

The issue even split district attorneys statewide, with Denver District Attorney Beth McCann for the repeal and 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler opposed.

“To the families of those innocent Coloradans murdered by the men who had been on death row, I say ‘I am sorry. I tried to uphold justice for you,’” Brauchler said in a statement. “To my fellow Coloradans, I say ‘elections have consequences.’”

Brauchler questioned Polis’ authority to grant commutation without approval from the corresponding district attorney – since all three men were sentenced in Arapahoe County, Brauchler wanted a say in the matter. Brauchler also asked the legislature to put the question of the death penalty to the people on the November ballot, and now argues these commutations were improperly granted while Ray and Owens have appeals pending before the court. 

“Rather than wait for the legal process, Gov. Polis apparently decided on his own, without any consultation or input from our office, to reduce their sentences forever to mere life in prison,” Brauchler said. “That does nothing to end their appellate process. Instead, they will get to continue to challenge their guilty verdicts and seek a new trial, but this time, they only face life in prison.”

While he strongly supports the death penalty, earlier this year Brauchler decided not to pursue capital punishment against Devon Erickson, who is suspected of killing a classmate at the STEM School Highlands Ranch last May and will go to trial in June.

The last person to be executed by the state was Gary Lee Davis in 1997, after he kidnapped, raped and killed a woman.

Polis made it clear in his announcement that the commuted sentences do not reflect any great changes in the condemned men.

“The commutations of these despicable and guilty individuals are consistent with the abolition of the death penalty in the State of Colorado, and consistent with the recognition that the death penalty cannot be, and never has been, administered equitably in the State of Colorado,” Polis said in a statement.  

The repeal will take effect for all cases charged on or after July 1.

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