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Crime and Courts

In 1997, Colorado’s first execution in 30 years marked a watershed moment. But did it change the conversation about capital punishment?

I witnessed the state impose the death sentence on Gary Lee Davis. It was a surreal event marked by a clean, quiet ease.

The mug shots and biography of Gary Lee Davis are held above the table on which the convicted murderer was later put to death in the Colorado State Penitentiary in this file photo from Sept. 24, 1997, during a media tour of the facility east of Cañon City. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
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In the course of Colorado’s long conversation about capital punishment, the execution of Gary Lee Davis in 1997 would seem to be a significant mile marker on the road to resolving a question that has long divided the state’s residents.

It had been 30 years since the state executed Luis Monge in the gas chamber, a device that by then had been relegated to the status of museum piece, a reminder of the bizarre machinations the state once employed. The Davis execution, by contrast, would be the state’s first by lethal injection — which, in the manner of most previous methods, was presented as a more humane alternative.

It happened on Oct. 13, a Monday night, at the Colorado State Penitentiary in Cañon City. There were five media witnesses, myself included, and five others — two relatives of Virginia “Ginny” May, the Byers woman who’d been kidnapped, raped and shot 14 times by Davis; the prosecutor, Adams County DA Bob Grant; a sheriff; and an attorney who had represented Davis on appeals.

Then, almost abruptly after months of build up, it was over. No apparent glitches, other than unfolding a few minutes behind schedule. No shocking surprises. No last-minute reprieve. No drama.  

So, did it change the death penalty conversation in Colorado?

That’s hard to tell, objectively. In terms of further executions, juries still appeared reluctant to impose capital punishment. And Colorado, while eventually adding more inmates to death row, resumed its posture of waiting for appeals to play out — and then joined the conglomeration of states that had gone at least 10 years since their last execution. Polls, which are tricky because responses tend to shift markedly depending on how the death penalty question is posed, narrowed slightly in the ensuing years on the national yes-or-no proposition, with a majority in favor.

Eleven years after Davis was executed, a 2008 Colorado poll asked people whether they would rather continue the death penalty or change to life without parole and use the savings to pursue cold-case killers. A majority opted for the latter, 63-27 percent.

Even so, the 1997 execution didn’t seem to figure very prominently in the discussion, which became dominated by advances in DNA forensics, statistical analyses that focused on topics like race and randomness, cost breakdowns, arguments about deterrence and the death penalty’s place in a moral universe.

Although the Davis execution represented a sea-change in Colorado correctional history — as of today, the only time in a half-century that the state has implemented the death penalty — it rarely surfaces as a talking point in the ongoing argument.

At the time, this looming and monumental event became my job. For the months leading up to the execution, I tried to tell readers as much as I could about everything and everyone connected to what was about to happen, on the pages — ink-stained and pre-internet — of The Denver Post. That meant digging into Davis’ past, talking with Ginny May’s family, following the 11th-hour efforts to obtain clemency. It also meant exploring the details of lethal injection — which while new to Colorado, had been used in executions elsewhere around the country for the previous 15 years.

Nationally, momentum was gathering in opposition to lethal injection itself, in part advancing the argument that the process merely sanitized the process for observers — but could be excruciating for the person being executed. But Colorado’s Department of Corrections went about preparing to fulfill the sentence, ostensibly, at least, with full confidence.

One memory here stands out: DOC executive director Ari Zavaras, a former Denver chief of police, explaining how he helped a staffer, who had no medical experience, practice inserting an IV line like the ones that would be used for lethal injection. Zavaras bared his arm and told the staffer to practice on him.

As the date approached, anti-death penalty advocates came out in force. There were vigils and rallies, including one at Denver’s federal courthouse, where Terry Nichols stood trial — and faced a possible federal death penalty — for his role in the Oklahoma City bombing. Demonstrators both for and against capital punishment took their signs to Cañon City and marched outside the prison grounds.

There was also Davis’ expected request for leniency from then-Gov. Roy Romer. With the help of his attorneys, Davis spoke in a 40-minute video in which he seemed to harbor some ambivalence about his fate. He detailed the mistakes in his life — his alcoholism was a prominent part of this narrative — and expressed remorse for the “hellish” way his victim had died. But he also noted that for him, death could be a blessing compared to a life sentence.

About a month before the scheduled execution, Romer acknowledged Davis’ remorse and rehabilitation, but said it didn’t outweigh his responsibility to pay the penalty for his actions. The decks were cleared for the execution to go forward.

I drove to Cañon City a couple days ahead of time and checked into a motel. Immersed as I had been in the history of Colorado’s relationship with the death penalty, it seemed natural to pay a visit to the local prison museum, which now holds the gas chamber, a green metal enclosure with windows on three sides and a simple chair sitting in the middle.

Later, I chatted with Wayne Patterson, the former warden who pulled the lever on the contraption to begin the state’s last execution — and whose mother, devoutly religious, frequently wrote to the inmates he supervised. He opposed the death penalty but accepted his role as part of the job and figured everyone in Colorado who had favored capital punishment in a 1966 referendum was no less responsible.

On the Saturday night before Davis was scheduled to die, I ducked into a local watering hole favored by corrections employees and learned that several planned to raise a toast at the scheduled time of Davis’ execution. On Sunday morning, I waded through a congregation leaving a church service and asked the pastor about what would transpire at the prison the next day. He acknowledged differences of opinion among his flock over the death penalty and noted that it was a hard reality.

Mostly, in a town dependent on the corrections industry, it was business as usual.

The Monday of the execution, the media got access to the press facility at the maximum-security Colorado State Penitentiary where we would file our stories. As witnesses, the five reporters would later return to debrief our colleagues before we began filing our own reports.

Shortly before 8 p.m., all 10 witnesses were shuttled to the building where the execution would take place. Preparations were running behind schedule, so there was a brief wait before we were ushered into a small room that featured two rows of five seats that faced a wall with three large windows. Curtains concealed the space behind them.

When they were pulled open, the 53-year-old Davis lay strapped to a gurney with his arms extended at an angle to the sides. Tubes led from his arms to yet another room, where the three drugs — sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride — would be administered in succession by an unseen member of the execution team. (In fact, we were told, even the people dispensing the drugs would not know which one of them supplied the lethal dose.)

If everything worked as planned, the first drug would render Davis unconscious, the second would paralyze him and stop his breathing and the third would stop his heart.

Only once did Davis move his gaze from the execution room. Twisting his head slightly to the right immediately after the curtains opened, he seemed to focus on his appeals attorney. She wore a bright red blazer in the hope that he would be able to pick her out.

At 8:24 p.m., the process began. A priest prayed beside Davis while two DOC staffers stood nearby, looking straight ahead. Knowing that not all lethal injections proceeded seamlessly, I focused on Davis’ reaction as the protocol continued. There was not much to report. A clenched fist, a slight twitch of the thumb, subtle movement of the lips, the fist relaxing, the eyes drooping but never quite closing.

Several minutes passed, but Davis never moved. Finally, the coroner entered and checked for a heartbeat, then shined a penlight into Davis’ eyes. After she left the room, the priest laid his hand on Davis’ head, then filed out.

The curtains closed.

How does one react? From the prosecutor and Ginny May’s father, there was a handshake and congratulations on justice served. The father would later say that he’d waste no more time thinking about Gary Lee Davis, that the execution gave fair warning that the death penalty was back and his daughter’s death would not be in vain.

As we headed outside to be shuttled back to the press area, we heard a clatter of tapping on cell windows behind us. We saw lights flickering — an effect, we later learned, achieved by prisoners intermittently covering their windows with blankets. A goodbye to the condemned man.

In the moment, I struggled with how outwardly uneventful, how matter-of-fact, the experience had been. There was not a lot of time to reflect before rushing to make deadline.

The next day, I left Cañon City feeling hollow and exhausted. Whatever one’s opinion on the death penalty, I concluded, personally witnessing Colorado’s first execution in 30 years probably would have done little, if anything, to change it.

Proponents might have seen Davis’ eyelids flutter and his lips quiver and been satisfied that the punishment had been fairly and compassionately dispensed, or even figured this end was too good for him, considering the depraved nature of his crimes. Opponents might have been deeply disturbed by the clean, quiet ease with which a life was taken in their name.

Some of us wondered if this would be just the first, with more to come in Colorado, now that the decades-long absence of capital punishment had been interrupted. But it wasn’t. Nearly 22 years later, the state is poised to consider abolition.


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