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Crime and Courts

TIMELINE: The death penalty in Colorado

Breaking down Colorado's history of capital punishment, plus a searchable database of death penalty cases since 1979.

The interior of the Colorado State Penitentiary in Cañon City, photographed sometime between 1920 and 1940. A law passed in 1889 required all state executions to occur inside the walls of Colorado State Penitentiary. (Harry Mellon Rhoads, Western History and Genealogy Dept., Denver Public Library)
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The first murderer to be executed in Colorado — 160 years ago this April — was hanged from a cottonwood tree near Cherry Creek after a legal process that took all of three days to go from crime to punishment.

The hanging of John Stoefel, who, in killing his brother-in-law, had committed Denver’s first murder, was the first of 103 legally ordered executions in Colorado history, dating back to before Colorado was even a state. (That number includes only instances where some type of credible judicial process led to the execution; it does not include vigilante executions.)

Since then, Colorado has seen the death penalty halted and then reinstated at least four times. One man who would later be declared innocent was executed. Only one of those 103 executions has occurred within the past 50 years.

Below is a timeline of the death penalty in the state, compiled largely from the research of University of Colorado at Boulder professor Michael Radelet, who has written the definitive history of capital punishment in Colorado.

1859: John Stoefel is executed and buried in a cemetery located in what is now Cheesman Park.

1861: Colorado is incorporated as a territory and adopts a formal death penalty law.

1877: James Miller, a black man convicted of killing a white man at a dance hall, is the first person executed in the newly formed state of Colorado.

1889: A new law requires all executions to be conducted within the walls of the state prison in Cañon City. Public executions had previously drawn thousands of people to watch.

1897: Amid an outcry over the morality of the death penalty, Gov. Alva Adams signs a law abolishing capital punishment in the state.

1901: After several lynchings and concerns about rising vigilante justice, Colorado reinstates the death penalty.

1934: Colorado becomes the second state to adopt the gas chamber as its execution method. Executions had previously been conducted by a hanging device known as the “twitch-up.”

1939: Joe Arridy is executed for allegedly sexually assaulting and killing a 15-year-old girl. Possessing an IQ of only 46, Arridy ate ice cream and played with a toy train before being led to the execution chamber. A re-examination beginning in the 1990s suggests Arridy had been wrongly implicated in the killing. A posthumous clemency petition is prepared and, in 2011, Gov. Bill Ritter issues Arridy a full pardon, calling the case, “a tragic conviction (based) on a false and coerced confession.”

1966: Colorado voters soundly defeat a ballot initiative to abolish the death penalty.

1967: Luis Jose Monge is executed for the murders of his wife and three of his children. He is the last person to be executed in Colorado for three decades.

1972: In the case Furman v. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court halts executions nationwide, finding that the way states implement the death penalty amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

1974: Colorado voters pass a rewritten death penalty law, reinstating capital punishment in the state.

1978: The Colorado Supreme Court strikes down the 1974 law, saying it doesn’t allow juries to fully consider mitigating factors in deciding a possible death sentence. Seven men are taken off death row as a result.

1979: The Colorado legislature passes a new bill reinstating the death penalty. Gov. Dick Lamm allows the bill to become law without his signature.

1988: Colorado joins a growing number of states by adopting lethal injection as its method of execution. The law does not allow any alternate methods.

1995: David Wymore, a public defender in Colorado, publishes an article outlining what he calls The Colorado Method — a defense strategy that emphasizes to jurors during jury selection that imposing the death penalty is an individual moral choice and that every juror’s views must be respected. It is now considered to be the gold standard in death penalty defense.

1995: Dismayed by the difficulty of winning death sentences from jurors, Colorado lawmakers pass a bill mandating that three-judge panels decide whether to impose capital punishment.

1996: Nathan Dunlap is sentenced to death for killing four people in an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese restaurant. Because Dunlap’s crime occurred before the three-judge system was adopted, his sentence is decided by a jury. He remains on death row.

1997: Gary Lee Davis, who kidnapped, raped and murdered a woman in Adams County, is the first inmate executed in Colorado in 30 years. No one has been executed since, though six men are on Colorado’s death row following Davis’s execution.

2001: Ronald Lee White receives a new sentence of life in prison after a court overturns his death sentence based on undisclosed evidence.

2002: Frank Rodriguez, who was sentenced to death for kidnapping and murder, dies in prison from complications related to Hepatitis C.

2002: In the case Ring v. Arizona, the U.S. Supreme Court finds that death sentences must be decided by juries, not judges. Colorado’s Supreme Court subsequently strikes down the state’s three-judge panel sentencing scheme, and three men on Colorado’s death row have their sentences changed to life in prison.

2005: A court changes the death sentence of Robert Harlan, convicted of kidnapping, rape and murder, to life in prison because jurors consulted a Bible during deliberations.

2008: Sir Mario Owens is sentenced to death for the murder of Javad Marshall Fields and Vivian Wolfe in Aurora. Marshall Fields was a witness in a separate murder case involving Owens. Owens remains on death row, and his appeals are ongoing.

2009: Colorado lawmakers come within one vote of sending a bill abolishing the death penalty to the governor.

2009: Robert Ray is sentenced to death in connection with Marshall Fields’ and Wolfe’s murders. He remains on death row, and his appeals are ongoing.

2013: After Dunlap exhausts all of the appeals he is guaranteed by right, Gov. John Hickenlooper issues an indefinite reprieve from execution in the case, calling the state’s death penalty system, “imperfect and inherently inequitable.” But Hickenlooper stops short of commuting Dunlap’s sentence, leaving the ultimate decision to a subsequent governor.

2014: Prosecutors agree to a plea deal sparing convicted killer Edward Montour from facing the death penalty. Montour, who killed a Colorado corrections officer named Eric Autobee, had previously been sentenced to death, but a court overturned that sentence and granted him a new trial. Autobee’s father became an outspoken opponent of the death penalty during the case and protested prosecutors’ efforts to pursue capital punishment.

2015: A poll shows two-thirds of Coloradans favor keeping the death penalty on the books.

2015: In separate cases, jurors decline to impose death sentences on a man who killed 12 people in an Aurora movie theater and a man who killed five people in a Denver bar.

2017: Colorado Democrats introduce a bill in the Republican-controlled Senate to repeal the death penalty. It fails at its first committee vote.

2018: Jurors decline to impose a death sentence on a man who killed two people in Colorado Springs, the third consecutive case in Colorado that reached a death penalty sentencing hearing but ended in a life verdict.

2019: Democrats at the Colorado legislature again introduce a bill to repeal the death penalty. With Democrats in charge of both chambers and Gov. Jared Polis saying he is in support, a repeal has its best chance of passing in decades.

Click here to see the chart below in full-screen.

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