Death penalty debate lingers | SteamboatToday.com

Death penalty debate lingers

DA, local official oppose repeal

Brandon Gee

— Northwest Colorado’s top prosecutor and Rep. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, oppose a repeal of Colorado’s death penalty that passed the state House of Representatives in a tight 33-32 vote.

House Bill 1274 would devote the expected savings of eliminating death as a sentencing option to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation’s Cold Case Homicide Team. It is sponsored by House Majority Leader Paul Weissmann, D-Louisville.

After the House approval last week, the bill was introduced in the state Senate on Thursday and assigned to the State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee. State Sen. Al White, R-Hayden, did not return a phone call Friday seeking comment.

In the House, only one Republican voted for H.B. 1274, and six Democrats voted against it.

“I do not support repealing the death penalty,” 14th Judicial District Attorney Elizabeth Oldham, a Republican, said Friday. “Philosophically, I do agree with the death penalty, but I have not encountered a case where I thought it was appropriate. : I think it should only be used in the rarest of circumstances.”

Oldham cited cases involving mutilation, torture and multiple victims as those that might warrant the death penalty. Colorado’s Republican Attorney General John Suthers also opposes the proposed law and has said death is the appropriate punishment for crimes such as terrorism, mass violence and killing witnesses. Gov. Bill Ritter, a Democrat and former prosecutor, has not yet taken a stance on the bill that could land on his desk before the end of the legislative session.

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Colorado has executed only one person in about 40 years, but Baumgardner said that is not a good argument for repealing capital punishment.

“The death penalty was more of a deterrent than the actual use of it,” he said Friday. “If there’s not that consequence : maybe (criminals) will commit that crime they normally wouldn’t have committed because of the deterrent.”

Oldham agreed that there is a deterrence element to the death penalty, but she said she would never leverage it for bargaining purposes.

“I do think there is a deterrence effect to it,” Oldham said, but “I personally would not use the threat of a death penalty to bring about some sort of a plea agreement.”

Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons supports the bill because of the enormous allocation it would mean for CBI’s cold-case unit. There are about 1,500 unsolved murders statewide.

“This is a very heartening development, not only for the families of these victims whose killers have never been prosecuted, but also for all the Coloradans who live in the communities that have been terrorized by the realization that we have killers walking among us and murderers living in our neighborhoods,” Howard Morton, executive director of the organization, said in a statement. “This vote by the House sends the strong message that we will no longer take a passive approach to old, unsolved murders. Colorado now intends to be proactive in going after these killers.”

According to a fiscal analysis of H.B. 1274, repealing the death penalty would save the state more than $1 million each of the next two fiscal years. The cold-case unit’s budget would increase from $68,000 and one full-time employee to $833,376 and 8 full-time employees.

Baumgardner said he is skeptical that the windfall would do much good.

“Either you solve them or you don’t,” he said.

Baumgardner said he is more supportive of another piece of controversial legislation that would allow for the taking of DNA evidence from people arrested on a felony charge. That would change existing law that allows the state to take DNA evidence only after a person has been convicted.

“I think we would be able to catch criminals faster if we used that money for DNA testing,” Baumgardner said.

Senate Bill 241, also known as Katie’s Law, has received preliminary approval in the Senate. It must receive final approval there before being sent to the House. The Colorado General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn May 6.

– To reach Brandon Gee, call 871-4210 or e-mail bgee@steamboatpilot.com