Policy

Colorado Abolishes Death Penalty

Centennial State becomes 22nd to cut capital punishment

Colorado state capitol building
Colorado state capitol building / Wikimedia Commons

Colorado governor Jared Polis (D.) on Monday evening signed a bill officially abolishing the death penalty in Colorado.

Polis also commuted the sentences of Colorado's three death-row offenders, the Denver Post reported, converting them into life without parole. The law prohibits a sentence of death for any crime committed on or after July 1. The state has just one ongoing potential capital case, concerning the murder of Adams County deputy Heath Gumm.

Polis defended his commutation as "consistent with the abolition of the death penalty in the State of Colorado," adding that in his view "the death penalty cannot be, and never has been, administered equitably in the State of Colorado."

But Colorado law enforcement was quick to decry abolition as a giveaway to Centennial State criminals.

"The decision to pass and sign the death penalty repeal bill should bring a smile to the faces of future serial killers, terrorists, cop killers, mass murderers, child killers, and those in prison who decide to kill again," Arapahoe County district attorney George Brauchler told the Denver Post.

Official abolition follows a years-long legislative effort pushed primarily by state Democrats. In late January, three Republicans joined most of the state senate's Democrats to pass an abolition bill through the GOP-controlled upper chamber. It subsequently sailed through the state House of Representatives before landing on Polis's desk.

Those three Republican votes were key to this final, successful attempt. State Democrats have previously brought up death penalty repeal five times, only to be blocked by Republican opposition.

Colorado's abolition follows a spate of similar legislative, judicial, and gubernatorial efforts over the past several years. New Hampshire legislatively abolished its own death penalty last year, while California governor Gavin Newsom (D.) instituted a moratorium on executions after a ballot referendum on abolition failed. In 2018, the Washington state Supreme Court found the death penalty incompatible with the state constitution; a legislative appeal is working its way through the state legislature.

These efforts, primarily by Democratic opponents of capital punishment, may be part of a broader push for nationwide abolition. If a majority of states abolish the death penalty, proponents may argue that it is no longer part of the "evolving standards of decency" which determine whether or not a punishment is "cruel and unusual" under the Eighth Amendment.

The U.S. Supreme Court's conservative majority, however, has strongly indicated that it is unlikely to be swayed by such arguments. Writing for a five-judge majority last April, Justice Neil Gorsuch insisted that capital punishment is per se constitutional, in part because it is explicitly contemplated in the Fifth Amendment—a sign that while it may be willing to curtail particular instances, the Court in its current configuration is unlikely to hear out full abolition.