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Colorado governor signs bill to repeal death penalty, commutes sentences for 3 on death row

Men on death row will now serve life without parole
Posted: 8:02 AM, Mar 24, 2020
Updated: 2020-03-24 11:02:36-04
Colorado governor signs bill to repeal death penalty, commutes sentences for 3 on death row

DENVER – Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on Monday signed the bill to repeal the state's death penalty and commuted the sentences of the three men on the state's death row to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Polis had been expected to sign SB20-100 since the House passed it in late February and sent the measure over to his desk this month.

Colorado is the 22nd state to abolish the death penalty. The three men on the state's death row — Robert Ray, Sir Mario Owens and Nathan Dunlap — will now serve life in prison without parole since their sentences were commuted.

"Commutations are typically granted to reflect evidence of extraordinary change in the offender. That is not why I am commuting these sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Rather, 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. "While I understand that some victims agree with my decision and others disagree, I hope this decision provides clarity and certainty for them moving forward. The decision to commute these sentences was made to reflect what is now Colorado law, and done after a thorough outreach process to the victims and their families."

The House passed the bill in a 38-27 vote on Feb. 26 after hours of emotional testimony. The Senate passed the measure with bipartisan support in late January after some Republicans voted for the measure, though Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, was among those opposing the bill.

Ray and Owens were convicted of killing Javad Marshall-Fields, the son of Sen. Fields and Marshall-Fields fiancée, in 2005, and Fields' opposition to the repeal has been a key point of contention in this year's debate after it caused last year's repeal measure to fail.

The 2020 repeal measure was the sixth attempt by lawmakers in recent years to get rid of the death penalty in Colorado — but the first to succeed.

Colorado voters passed a law to reinstate the death penalty in 1974, but it was struck down four years later by the Colorado Supreme Court. But in 1979, the legislature passed another bill reinstating the death penalty, which then-Gov. Dick Lamm allowed to become law without his signature.

In 1997, Gary Lee Davis became the last person to be executed in Colorado and the first since Luis Monge in 1967. He was also the only person executed in Colorado to die as a result of lethal injection.

Now that Polis has signed the bill, anyone convicted of a class 1 felony that is charged after July 1 of this year would automatically face a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In a lengthy statement Monday afternoon, 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler, a Republican who represents the area from which all three men whose sentences commuted were convicted, slammed the Democratic governor's decision.

"There are a few in Colorado today who will cheer the sparing of the lives of these cold-blooded murderers. For the rest of Colorado, make no mistake: We will save no money. We are not safer. We are not a better people. And the only lives spared are those who commit the ultimate acts of evil against us," Brauchler said, in part. "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.'"

This story was originally published by Blair Miller on KMGH in Denver.