Colorado lawmakers set to approve death penalty repeal

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) - State lawmakers in Denver were expected to pass and send to the governor on Wednesday a bill that would repeal the death penalty in Colorado, making it the 22nd state to abolish capital punishment over the past 15 years.

The Colorado Senate adopted the measure in January, and the state House of Representatives set the stage for final passage with a preliminary vote in favor of the bill early on Tuesday, capping a 12-hour floor debate.

Both chambers of the General Assembly are controlled by Democrats, although two Republican senators are co-sponsors of the measure.

Governor Jared Polis, a first-term Democrat, intends to sign the bill into law if it reaches his desk, his spokesman told Reuters via email.

Twenty-nine U.S. states, including Colorado, have the death penalty on their books, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Capital punishment also remains in the criminal code of the federal government and U.S. military justice system.

If the Colorado repeal is enacted, it would mark the 22nd state since 2004 to abolish the death penalty by legislation or court action, according to the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center, which tracks the issue.

Public support for capital punishment has ebbed considerably in the meantime, slipping to a 47-year low in 2019 as 60% of Americans expressed a preference for life imprisonment over execution as the severest form of punishment, the center said in report in December, citing a Gallup poll.

One factor driving the decline has been the advent of more highly sophisticated DNA technology that has helped exonerate individuals wrongly convicted of capital crimes.

Supporters of repeal point to the irrevocable nature of capital punishment, as well as to evidence that the death penalty is often imposed disproportionately on minorities and the poor.

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“The death penalty is immoral, it is applied inconsistently, and it is the one punishment in our entire justice system that can't be undone or corrected,” state Representative Adrienne Benavidez said, a Democratic sponsor of the Colorado bill.

Story continues

Colorado has just three men on death row, and has executed just one inmate - by lethal injection - since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976 after a four-year nationwide moratorium.

Opponents of the bill argued during the House debate that even though Colorado rarely carries out executions, prosecutors use the threat of capital punishment to pressure murder defendants into pleading guilty, sparing victims’ families lengthy and painful trials.

Representative Lori Saine, a Republican, read a letter from a prosecutor who said he used the threat of the death penalty to secure guilty pleas from a defendant who murdered his pregnant wife and two small daughters in 2018.

Last week, Tennessee put an inmate to death by electric chair, the fourth execution in the United States this year.

(Reporting and writing by Keith Coffman in Denver; Editing by Steve Gorman, Robert Birsel)

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