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Colorado Senate passes bill to repeal state's death penalty on to House

Posted: 12:36 PM, Jan 31, 2020
Updated: 2020-02-01 00:26:01-05
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DENVER – The Colorado Senate voted 19-13 Friday to pass the bill to repeal the state’s death penalty over to the House – but only after a second morning in a row of emotional debate among the senators that centered mostly around Sen. Rhonda Fields and her son’s killers.

Bill sponsors Sens. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, and Jack Tate, R-Centennial, began debate on the third and final reading of SB20-100 Friday morning by thanking the chamber for what they said was a “profound” and “powerful” debate on the matter on Thursday.

“I fully understand the complexity and how so many of those points have equally valid arguments and counterarguments,” Tate said. “I’ve just decided that the state should not have the power over life and death in any circumstance.”

Gonzales and the others who spoke thanked Fields for her dedication to keeping the death penalty intact and for her never-bending will to keep this year’s repeal measure from passing – despite her knowing that the measure likely had the votes to pass the Senate, where prior repeal bills have failed.

“To be able to argue a position so zealously and so masterfully – I want to thank you for bringing your whole self to this debate, even when it’s been difficult and even when it’s been hard,” Gonzales said. “That is us doing our work at our best. Even when we disagree, when we treat each other with dignity and respect, that is when this chamber does our best work.”

Fields, an Aurora Democrat, opposes the repeal of the death penalty because the killers of her son, Javad Marshall-Fields, and his fiancée, are two of the three men still on death row. Robert Ray and Sir Mario Owens were convicted of the 2015 murder and sentenced to death.

Her opposition to last year’s repeal bill sank the measure. But this year, three Republicans – Sens. Kevin Priola, Owen Hill and Tate – supported the measure with most Democrats, giving the measure enough votes to pass the chamber.

Hill made the argument Friday that his faith tells him that no man or woman should be in the business of taking a human life. Several other Republicans argued that it was their faith that led their belief that the death penalty should stay intact.

Fields took to the floor to describe her displeasure at a colleague describing her opposition to the measure as a “distraction.” She outlined how being notified of the death of her son was the real distraction in her life and how she “didn’t even know how to take [her] next breath” after his death.

“God forbid that you ever have to experience the distraction that I had to encounter,” she said.

She then implored, one final time, her colleagues to vote against the bill, telling them it is not the will of the people of Colorado to repeal something they voted to reinstate.

“Members, today, you’re making history. And your vote will be recorded. And the record in the history will show when the General Assembly has done this in the past, the people of Colorado have come back and said not so,” Fields said. “We want this option. So be aware of the vote you’re taking today because it will really reflect if you’re for public safety, for police, for victims – or you’re not.”

Much was made Friday by senators opposed to the repeal about an amendment to the measure that passed on Thursday to the bill’s title denoting that the repeal would apply only to crimes charged on or after July 1, 2020 – despite the original bill containing that language, just not its title.

Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, told the chamber that people who voted in favor of the amendment and the bill's passage would be reflecting “ambiguity” because they would be saying the death penalty is wrong – but not for the three men already on death row. He would later in the morning vote against the repeal, saying that he believes the House should try again to amend the bill to refer the question to voters – amendments that failed in the Senate.

Sen. Jessie Danielson, D-Wheat Ridge, was the only other Democrat to vote against the measure aside from Fields. She said she would vote against the measure to support the Aurora senator and other families like hers affected by murder.

“Do you want to take the tool away for future families understanding your connection to one of these victims makes it real to you?” she asked her colleagues.

“I’m choosing to instead side with the victims and the district attorneys who we depend on when seeking justice for these kinds of crimes, and for the families they impact,” she said. “I’m choosing to side with the vast majority of Coloradans who do not support abolishing the death penalty.”

Sen. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, pointed to court opinions that say the death penalty is “constitutional infirm” on Eight Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment and said that he worries about innocent people being sentenced to death, as 156 people have been exonerated in cases for which they were sentenced to death nationwide since 1979.

But Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Parker, said that if the death penalty was unconstitutional, the courts would have overturned it.

Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, was emotional during her floor speech. She talked about her longtime relationship with her fellow Aurora Democrat and her votes in the past both for and against different repeal measures. But she pointed to what she called “painful” appeals processes families of victims of people sentenced to death have to endure and her belief that the death penalty does not deter crime as reasons why she would end up supporting the measure despite her relationship with Fields.

She also described her reasoning behind her vote both in favor of the amendment to the measure passed Thursday and for the bill’s final passage.

“I can vote for that because that is what the law on the books was at the time of the crime and judgment. I believe that if the law is on the books, you either use it or you change it, and that is what we are debating today,” Todd said. “It is very easy for me to stand with my good friend and also with justice.”

Republican Sens. Ray Scott and Don Coram were excused Friday for the vote, as was Democratic Sen. Brittany Pettersen, who is on maternity leave.

The bill now heads to the House, which has a large Democratic majority and which is also expected to pass the measure on to the desk of Gov. Jared Polis.