Gov. Jared Polis on Monday signed into law a bill abolishing Colorado’s death penalty, simultaneously commuting the sentences of the three men on the state’s death row.
Polis converted the death sentences of the men — Nathan Dunlap, Robert Ray and Sir Mario Owens — to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The governor’s decision marks one of the most significant and emotional choices he’s made since taking office in January 2019.
“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,” Polis said in a written statement. “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 added: “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.”
Polis’ decision to sign death penalty bill into law wasn’t a surprise. He had vowed to do so if it reached his desk. But the commutations, while rumored to be accompanying the governor’s signing of the measure, were unexpected to the public.
At least one victim’s family expressed disappointment on Monday at the news.
18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler, whose office handled the prosecution of all three death row inmates, blasted the commutations as political opportunism timed to coincide with a pandemic. He complained that neither he nor his office was consulted and that Polis should have provided, at the least, a heads up.
“There’s no rush to commute the sentences of people who have been on death row for one to two decades,” Brauchler said. “If you were looking to bury this horrendous decision, this was the best way to do it.”
Dunlap’s attorney, Madeline Cohen, applauded the commutations.
“By commuting Nathan’s death sentence to one of life without possibility of release, Gov. Polis has finally brought about a just and fair end to more than a quarter century of legal proceedings in this case,” she said in a written statement. “We know that the families of Nathan’s victims have a range of views about the death penalty and about his sentence. We respect all of their positions and we will always be deeply saddened by the pain and loss they have endured. We do hope, however, that today’s decision allows them to find some sense of closure, and that the future brings them peace and healing.”
Polis signed the death penalty repeal measure in private, given the outbreak of the new coronavirus. Colorado is now the 22nd state to eliminate capital punishment.
Monday was the deadline by which he had to either sign the measure, veto it or send it to the Colorado secretary of state to become law without his signature.
The General Assembly took an unusually long time to send the bill to Polis. Legislative leadership said they held onto the measure to give the governor enough time to talk to victims’ families before signing the measure, which he had said since last year that he would do.
“There are a lot of people reaching out to the governor right now,” House Speaker KC Becker said March 9 of the delay.
The legislation passed the Colorado General Assembly last month with bipartisan support, but opposition to the bill — while not enough to stop its passage — was both fierce and emotional.
Two Democrats, Sen. Rhonda Fields and Rep. Tom Sullivan, vehemently opposed the repeal. Fields’ son and his fiancée were killed by Ray and Owens.
Sullivan’s son was murdered during the 2012 Aurora theater shooting and prosecutors tried unsuccessfully to sentence the gunman to death.
“It’s just hard for me to describe how I’m feeling,” Rhonda Fields said Monday. “I feel like justice was just hijacked after years and years of court proceedings. Here we are with the stroke of a pen the governor just sweeps it away.”
The death row inmates’ crimesDunlap, who has spent 23 years awaiting execution since his sentencing in 1996, is the longest-serving death row inmate in modern Colorado history. He exhausted the last appeal he is legally guaranteed more than seven years ago.
On Monday, Cohen, who has represented Dunlap for 15 years, said she had been able to speak with Dunlap about the governor’s commutation — though not in person because of visitor restrictions at Colorado prisons due to the new coronavirus. She said Dunlap was “relieved and grateful.”
Three of those Dunlap murdered in 1993 were teenagers, working the closing shift at the Chuck E. Cheese restaurant, and their families have now spent many more years navigating the case’s legal proceedings than they got with their loved ones. Last summer, the mother of Sylvia Crowell, one of the victims, died with Dunlap’s sentence still in limbo. Crowell’s father died the year prior.
The cases of Ray and Owens are still going through the appellate process. They were sentenced to die for their roles in killing Javad Marshall Fields and his fiancée, Vivian Wolfe, in 2005.
Javad Marshall Fields was a witness to another fatal shooting and was targeted because he was set to testify in that case.
Rhonda Fields said she had been in contact with the governor about his decision on Monday and that she knew it was coming. Her daughter, Maisha, said the commutations swept away everything they went through with Owens’ and Ray’s trials.
“When we finished the trial we were told this was finite,” Maisha Fields said. “We were told: ‘This is the end. This is what justice looks like.’ Justice was kidnapped from us.”
Brauchler said neither Polis nor anyone from the governor’s office ever reached out to him on the capital cases.
“Not one time,” he said. “I got, like, two hours notice.”
Owens and Ray did not file for clemency, but Dunlap had in the past. Brauchler believes the law required Polis to consult with him before commuting Dunlap’s sentence, but now that the decision has been made it’s too late.
Brauchler also blasted the legislature for adding what’s called a “safety clause” into Senate Bill 100, which prevents opponents of legislation from asking voters to halt a measure from going into effect. There has been talk of a ballot measure to reinstate capital punishment in Colorado.
Pending cases can still result in death penaltyPolis didn’t have to commute the sentences of the death row inmates. Senate Bill 100 is not retroactive and thus doesn’t affect their cases.
He suggested last year that he would commute their sentences if the legislature sent him a bill repealing the death penalty.
But recently, Polis had said the cases were not ripe for review because he hadn’t received clemency requests for Dunlap, Ray and Owens. He also said he would weigh each case on its individual merits.
Polis, however, had the power to remove their death penalty sentences at any time. And on Monday he put that authority to use.
The last person Colorado put to death was Gary Lee Davis, who was executed in 1997 for kidnapping, raping and murdering a woman in Adams County.
Prosecutors in Arapahoe, Denver and El Paso counties have in recent years sought capital punishment in a handful of cases, but juries rejected their efforts. Not since June 2009, when Ray was sentenced, has a Colorado jury signed off on death.
There are multiple pending death penalty cases and potential death penalty cases in Colorado, including against admitted Planned Parenthood shooter Robert Lewis Dear Jr. and Dreion Dearing, who is accused of fatally shooting Adams County Sheriff’s Deputy Heath Gumm.
In the Dearing case, jury selection is underway.
Those cases can still continue because Senate Bill 100 makes defendants ineligible for capital punishment only if they are charged on or after July 1, 2020.
It’s not clear how or if Polis’ decision to commute the sentences of Ray, Owens or Dunlap would affect those cases.
Brauchler said his office currently has murder cases that he could potentially seek capital punishment in. He said he won’t be deterred by Polis’ commutations.