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Capital punishment in Colorado

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Capital punishment was a legal penalty in the U.S. state of Colorado from 1974 until 2020.

It was reinstated in 1974 by popular vote, with 61% in favor of the measure that was referred to the voters by the state legislature.[1]

In March 2020, the Colorado Legislature passed a bill to repeal the death penalty for individuals – only for crimes committed after July 1, 2020. The bill was signed by the Governor of Colorado on March 23, 2020.[2][3] The law is not retrospective to the three inmates who were then housed on death row. Nonetheless, the three men who were awaiting execution had their death sentences commuted to life in prison by Governor Jared Polis on March 23, 2020.

Early history

Colorado was one of the first states to repudiate the death penalty by abolishing it in 1897 only to restore it once more in 1901 due to a number of lynchings that had occurred. In total, 101 people were executed in Colorado in the period before Furman v. Georgia[note 1] (1859–1972). Eleven of these executions were prior to Statehood; 90 since. All were executed as punishment for murder and all were male.[4][5]

Hanging was the sole method of execution until it was replaced by the gas inhalation in 1934. There were 69 hangings and 32 gassings.[4][5]

Luis Monge, gassed on June 2, 1967, was the last person put to death in Colorado prior to 1977. One other notable execution was the case of Jack Gilbert Graham who was executed on January 11, 1957, for killing 44 people by placing a bomb aboard United Airlines Flight 629.

Colorado is notable for being the last state to make use of lethal gas prior to the 1972 Supreme Court decision that effectively abolished capital punishment in the United States. Colorado performed the last pre-Furman gassing in 1967. Oklahoma performed the last pre-Furman electrocution in 1966.

Kansas performed the last pre-Furman hanging in 1965. Utah performed the last pre-Furman execution of a death sentence by firing squad in 1960 (and coincidentally, the first post-Furman execution by firing squad in 1977).


When the prosecution sought the death penalty, the sentence was decided by the jury and required unaninimity. In case of a hung jury during the penalty phase of the trial, a life sentence was issued, even if a single juror opposed death (there was no retrial).[6]

From 1995 to 2003, death sentences in Colorado were decided on by a three-judge panel. Three people (George Woldt; Francisco Martinez, Jr.; and William Neal) were sentenced to death under this system until it was overturned following Ring v. Arizona, retroactively commuting the death sentences to life without parole.[7]

Capital crimes

Before July 1, 2020, first-degree murder was punishable by death in Colorado if:[6]

  1. It was committed by a person under sentence of imprisonment for a class 1, 2, or 3 felony
  2. The defendant was previously convicted of a class 1 or 2 felony involving violence
  3. The defendant knowingly killed a law officer, elected officer, judicial officer or firefighter, while the person was engaged in the course of the performance of the person's duties or because of them
  4. The defendant killed a person kidnapped or held as a hostage by him or by anyone associated with him
  5. The defendant has been a party to an agreement to kill another person in furtherance of which a person has been intentionally killed
  6. It was committed while lying in wait, from ambush, or by use of an explosive or incendiary device or a chemical, biological, or radiological weapon.
  7. The defendant committed a class 1, 2, or 3 felony and, in the course of or in furtherance of such or immediate flight therefrom, the defendant intentionally caused the death of a person other than one of the participants
  8. It was committed for pecuniary gain
  9. The defendant knowingly created a grave risk of death to another person in addition to the victim of the offense
  10. It was committed in an especially heinous, cruel, or depraved manner
  11. The murder was committed for the purpose of avoiding or preventing a lawful arrest or prosecution or effecting an escape from custody, including killing of a witness to a criminal offense.
  12. The defendant unlawfully and intentionally, knowingly, or with universal malice manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life generally, killed two or more persons during the commission of the same criminal episode
  13. The victim is a child under 12 years of age
  14. The murder was committed because of the victim's race, color, ancestry, religion, or national origin
  15. The defendant's possession of the weapon used to commit the class 1 felony constituted a felony offense under Colorado or federal law
  16. The defendant intentionally killed more than one person in more than one criminal episode
  17. The defendant knowingly killed a pregnant woman

Colorado statute books had still provided the death penalty for first-degree kidnapping[8] and aggravated assault by an escaping capital felon,[9] but the death penalty for these crimes had been ruled unconstitutional in the 2008 U.S. Supreme Court case Kennedy v. Louisiana.


The Governor of Colorado has the sole right to pardon or commute the death sentence. As of 2011, no gubernatorial commutation of a living prisoner had been granted in Colorado.[10] However, on March 23, 2020, the three men who were awaiting execution had their death sentences commuted to life in prison by Governor Jared Polis on the same day that Polis had signed into law a bill repealing the state's death penalty.

On January 7, 2011, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter granted a full and unconditional posthumous pardon to Joe Arridy, who had been convicted and executed as an accomplice to a murder that occurred in 1936. The pardon came 72 years after Arridy's execution and was the first such pardon in Colorado history. A press release from the governor's office stated, "[A]n overwhelming body of evidence indicates the 23-year-old Arridy was innocent, including false and coerced confessions, the likelihood that Arridy was not in Pueblo at the time of the killing, and an admission of guilt by someone else."

The governor pointed to Arridy's IQ of 46. The governor said, "Granting a posthumous pardon is an extraordinary remedy. But the tragic conviction of Mr. Arridy and his subsequent execution on Jan. 6, 1939, merit such relief based on the great likelihood that Mr. Arridy was, in fact, innocent of the crime for which he was executed, and his severe mental disability at the time of his trial and execution. Pardoning Mr. Arridy cannot undo this tragic event in Colorado history. It is in the interests of justice and simple decency, however, to restore his good name."[11]

On May 22, 2013, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said it was unlikely he would ever allow the execution of convicted killer Nathan Dunlap. Hickenlooper granted Dunlap an indefinite reprieve, citing doubts about the fairness of Colorado's death penalty.[12]

2020 Colorado General Assembly

On January 14, 2020, Senate Bill 20-100 was introduced in the Colorado Senate with prime sponsors being Senators Julie Gonzales and Jack Tate as well as Representatives Jeni James Arndt and Adrienne Benavidez. The bill would repeal death penalty for individuals - only after July 1, 2020, and it is not retrospective to the current three inmates on death row, however, the Governor Jared Polis said "If the state, Republicans and Democrats, were to say, and I were to sign, a bill that said we no longer have the death penalty in Colorado … I would certainly take that as a strong indication that those who are currently on death row should have their sentences commuted to life in prison,"[13][14] On January 31, 2020, the Colorado Senate voted 19-13 on the bills final reading to pass it and advance it to the Colorado House of Representatives.[13]

On February 26, 2020, the Colorado House of Representatives voted 38-27 on final reading to pass it and send it to the Governor's desk. The bill was signed on March 23, 2020.[2][3][15]

Method of executions

Lethal injection was the only permitted method of execution in Colorado,[16] although the state previously used hanging and the gas chamber.

Former death row

Colorado's death row had been located in Colorado State Penitentiary.[17]

As of March 23, 2020, three people had been awaiting execution:

  1. Nathan Dunlap, convicted and sentenced to death for murdering four people at a Chuck E. Cheese's restaurant in 1993;
  2. Mario Owens, who was convicted and received a jury's death determination in 2008 for the murder of a young couple, Javad Marshall-Fields and his fiancée, Vivian Wolfe, both prosecution witnesses in a murder trial involving Owens; and
  3. Robert Ray, who ordered the murders of Marshall-Fields and Wolfe while awaiting his own trial for murder.

However, on March 23, 2020, Governor Jared Polis commuted the sentences of these three men to life in prison without the possibility of parole.[18][19]

In March 2020, the death penalty was repealed by the Colorado Legislature for any crimes committed after July 1, 2020.

Executions since 1977

Only one person was ever executed by the state of Colorado since the reintroduction of capital punishment.

# Name Race Date of execution Victim Method Under Governor
1 Gary Lee Davis White October 13, 1997 Virginia May Lethal injection Roy R. Romer

See also

Further reading

  • Michael L. Radelet. 2017. The History of the Death Penalty in Colorado. (Boulder: University Press of Colorado)


  1. ^ Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972) was a criminal case in which the United States Supreme Court struck down all death penalty schemes in the United States in a 5–4 decision, with each member of the majority writing a separate opinion. Following Furman, in order to reinstate the death penalty, states had to at least remove arbitrary and discriminatory effects, to satisfy the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.


  1. ^ "Colorado Death Penalty for Class 1 Felonies, Measure 2 (1974)". Retrieved June 17, 2017.
  2. ^ a b How the death penalty works in Colorado
  3. ^ a b Governor signs bill abolishing Colorado’s death penalty, commutes sentences of state’s 3 death row inmates – The Colorado Sun
  4. ^ a b Regional Studies Central Archived 2008-10-17 at the Wayback Machine; accessed November 14, 2016.
  5. ^ a b [1] Archived May 5, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ a b Colorado Revised Statutes § 18-1.3-1201
  7. ^
  8. ^ "COCODE". Retrieved June 15, 2015.
  9. ^ "COCODE". Retrieved June 15, 2015.
  10. ^ "Clemency". Retrieved June 15, 2015.
  11. ^ "Mental Retardation". Retrieved February 17, 2014.
  12. ^ "Untitled Document". Retrieved June 15, 2015.
  13. ^ a b Repeal The Death Penalty | Colorado General Assembly
  14. ^ Polis Would Commute Sentences If State Lawmakers Pass Death Penalty Ban
  15. ^
  16. ^ "Methods of Execution". Archived from the original on 2008-07-03. Retrieved June 15, 2015.
  17. ^ Three men still on Colorado's death row after judge denies capital appeal - The Colorado Independent
  18. ^ Death penalty abolished in Colorado
  19. ^ Gov. Polis Signs Death Penalty Repeal Bill, Commutes Death Row Sentences to Life in Prison Without Parole
This page was last edited on 28 March 2020, at 02:36
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