For some people there is triumph over tragedy. For state Sen. Rhonda Fields, there is triumph alongside it.
“My pastor told me long ago that I did not bury my son — that I planted him,” Fields said in a speech on the Colorado Senate floor in January. “And from planting him came the efforts of all of the work that you see me do down here.”
The Aurora Democrat dove into politics in the wake of her son Javad’s murder in 2005, a shooting that also killed his fiancée, Vivian Wolfe and led to the death-penalty convictions of Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray.
Death Penalty in Colorado
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The pair make up two-thirds of Colorado’s death row as their cases travel through the appellate process.
Fields supports capital punishment and said she plans to be outspoken about her opposition to a bill being brought by fellow Democrats that would to repeal the death penalty in Colorado.
“I think our death-penalty statute is one that’s very reasonable,” she told The Colorado Sun. “It’s something that our DAs just don’t dole out because there are certain elements that have to be met before it’s considered. It’s very seldom sought out when you think about other states, like Texas and Florida.”
The Sun spoke with Fields about her journey to the statehouse, her feelings about capital punishment and her response to remarks from Gov. Jared Polis that he might commute the sentences of the men who killed her son:
The following interview was edited for clarity and length.
Colorado Sun: We heard that your opinions on this topic were shifting?
Sen. Rhonda Fields: When I think about my opinion shifting, basically that means that the work that I do and the person that I am is not centered around the offenders who committed this horrific crime against my son and his fiancée. So, when I say it’s shifting, it’s evolving. It means that no matter what the outcome is regarding the repeal of the death penalty, it’s really not going to change who I am as a woman, as a mom, as a senator. Because that has already — his death has already impacted me. That murder. Those scars will always be there, so it doesn’t matter the outcome. I’m still going to be left with the isolation and the pain of how that act has resulted in who I am. It’s not going to change who I am. I’ve already been damaged by the trauma of the murders, so it just will be another sting.
CS: Is your plan to be very vocal about the repeal effort?
RF: It depends on how it’s presented. There’s going to be some words that are going to provoke a response. I’m not quite sure what that looks like, but I’m going to respond to whatever is shared. I’ll be vocal and I’ll be honest. And I’ll be speaking from the heart.
CS: You are one of two people in the Capitol who are closer to this issue than most people. Rep. Tom Sullivan, a Centennial Democrat, lost his son in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting and also opposes repealing the death penalty.
RF: All I know is my position and my family’s position. It’s a very personal decision. I’m not in the business of trying to convince people one way or not. I used to do that — when you talk about evolving — I used to try to convince people. But I’ve matured and I don’t try convince people about their position. Either you support it or you don’t. It doesn’t impact me because I’m going to stand where I’m standing.
CS: Gov. Jared Polis suggested in an interview with Colorado Public Radio that he would commute the sentences of people on death row if the death penalty repeal passes.
RF: He has not had that conversation with me. And so to hear that from the news, without having that conversation from the governor, is disappointing. Because out of courtesy, if he’s going to do that and two of the people on death row are responsible for murdering my son, I think the right thing to do would be to call the mother.
(Polis declined an interview, but released the following statement to The Sun: “There was absolutely no disrespect intended. I’ve been clear that if the legislature passed a bill to abolish the death penalty, I would sign it. I am inspired by the work Sen. Fields does for her community and how she is driven by the memory of her son.”)
CS: A question that I know is going to be raised is why not bring this to a vote of the people as opposed to just having the legislature pass a repeal. What do you think about that?
RF: I think that the people should weigh in on this decision. At the end of the day, I think that would be the right approach.
CS: Do you think you are going to talk about your son a lot while this bill is being discussed?
RF: Most likely. It’s going to be a difficult conversation, but it’s one that we have to have. I think that’s how we get at good public policy, when we talk through it and we don’t push through it without having a full debate. I’m looking forward to having that debate and that discussion on the floor, if it makes it that far. I’m not afraid of it. It’s not hurtful for me because it’s something that we have to talk about. For me to shy away from it or to shrink from it is just not something that I can do.
CS: What do you think are the important parts of the conversation?
RF: I think the important thing is to remember the victims. I think a lot of times the focus is on the offender. I think there is too much discussion about the men who are on death row and their race. I think the discussion should be on the act, and the act was murder. I think we should be discussing and elevating the people whose lives were lost because of their act. In my case, the folks who murdered my son were trying to get away with murder. They wanted to silence his testimony. So now they’re serving their sentence based on them trying to get away with murder. It shouldn’t be based on cost. Because what price do you put on justice? What value do you want to put on my son’s life and his fiancée’s life? I don’t know if there is a price tag that you can put on justice. When someone commits a heinous crime there should be consequences.
CS: When former Gov. John Hickenlooper commuted the death sentence of Nathan Dunlap in 2013 he said the state needed to have a conversation about the death penalty. Do you think that enough of that the conversation has occured get to the point where we are debating this bill again?
RF: I don’t think so. I think that there’s been probably independent, isolated circles of conversation. But I don’t think that the public has been engaged in this topic. I think that people are concerned about their wages, they’re concerned about access to healthcare, they’re concerned about affordable housing. They’re concerned about day-to-day issues. To be focused on the dark side — I mean when all the kinds of things that we can be focusing on in the state and for us to to be focusing on people who commit murder — is just not what I think should be a priority. I think we should be funding full-day kindergarten and making sure that prescription drugs are affordable and those kinds of things. Those are the right things to talk about. These men have committed some horrific acts. And they can’t take that back. I will never get my son and his fiancée back.
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