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State Sen. Rhonda Fields, center, joins in conversation with Rep. Donald Valdez during a joint session in the House Chambers. Fields is an Aurora Democrat whose son, Javad, was murdered in a 2005 shooting. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The deep and emotional tension surrounding a bill to repeal the death penalty in Colorado came alive on the Senate floor in a six-hour debate Thursday.

“By having the death penalty in Colorado, we are saying to the people that murdering is wrong –– unless the state does it,” said Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat and the measure’s sponsor.

The state Senate gave the bill initial approval in a 19-15 vote, which represents a major shift after last year, when a similar measure failed to advance because of Democratic infighting. A final vote in the Senate is expected Friday before the measure moves to a supportive Democratic-led House and eventually to Gov. Jared Polis, who has said he will sign the bill. 

The legislation, Senate Bill 100, defied party lines as three Republicans supported ending capital punishment as a sentencing option starting July 1, and two Democrats voted against it.

MORE: “Those scars will always be there”: Rhonda Fields’ son was murdered by two of the three men on Colorado’s death row

The most passionate opposition came from Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, whose criticism of the bill helped lead to its defeat a year ago. Two of the three men currently on death row were convicted for the murder of Fields’ son, Javad Marshal Fields, and his fiancée, Vivian Wolfe. 

“I am revictimized and retraumatized every time I have to tell this story, because it’s hard,” said Fields, who added that Javad would have turned 37 on Wednesday. 

“It’s hard because (the bill’s supporters) don’t get it,” she continued. “They don’t get it because they are on a mission. And it’s harmful.”

Questions remain about fate of current death row inmates

The bill would not impact the three men currently on death row in Colorado, but Polis indicated last year that if the repeal becomes law he would commute the sentences.

Fields added language to the bill to ensure their sentences would remain in place.

But a last-minute amendment, added by state Sen. Steve Fenberg, the chamber’s majority leader, makes clear the governor still gets the final say. 

“We are not allowed to preempt the governor’s authority on commutations,” the Boulder Democrat said.

TIMELINE: The death penalty in Colorado

Republican Sen. Jack Tate, one of the bill’s sponsors, said he opposes the death penalty on principle. “This is a philosophical decision. I don’t support the state having the power over life and death,” the Centennial lawmaker said.

Fields argued that Colorado has the highest legal standard for the death penalty in the U.S. and the sentence is difficult to seek. She said it should remain a tool for district attorneys to use as they see fit.

Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, proposed an amendment that would have asked voters whether to repeal the death penalty. Fields also supported the idea, but it failed on a voice vote.

“Why are we forcing a mandate of repeal that everyone has to abide by? Let the people decide. People do want to uphold the death penalty,” Fields said.

The debate touched on faith and morality

The lengthy discussion touched on everything from discrimination and justice to morality and religion.

“The debate surrounding the death penalty is not new,” said Sen. Angela Williams, D-Denver, noting that the moral argument for capital punishment “has clouded Colorado for more than 100 years.”

Williams, a Catholic, says she leaned on her faith in making her decision to support the repeal of the death penalty. She said it’s not about morality, it’s about justice.

“I shed no tears knowing that they will never set foot outside a prison again,” Williams said. “… This discussion is about the violation of human dignity. We should not meet unspeakable violence with more violence.”

MORE: Colorado law mandates which drugs be used for lethal injection. So what happens when they are no longer made?

Fields had just one ally from her Democratic caucus who voted against the bill, Sen. Jessie Danielson, D-Wheat Ridge.

“It’s not a theoretical conversation about ethics for me, it’s about our friend and our colleague, and I’m not going to ignore that,” she added.

On the Republican side of the aisle, Sens. Kevin Priola of Henderson and Owen Hill of Colorado Springs voted in support of the bill, along with Tate.

More on the death penalty in Colorado

An eyewitness account of Colorado’s most recent execution

He survived the Aurora Chuck E. Cheese shooting 25 years ago. A possible death penalty repeal is bringing it all back up.

Everything you need to know about Colorado’s current death penalty law

In an interview after the vote, Fields said she was disappointed that victims seemed absent from her caucus’ discussion.

“Most people were talking about the offenders — that they don’t deserve the punishment, that the offenders’ treatment is cruel and unusual,” Fields said. “There was very little discussion from those who support the abolishment of the death penalty talking about victims.”

Colorado’s last execution was in 1997, when Gary Lee Davis was put to death by lethal injection for raping, kidnapping and murdering a woman.

There are three men on Colorado’s death row currently. They are: Robert Ray, Sir Mario Owens and Nathan Dunlap.

Twenty-one states have abolished the death penalty.

Moe Clark is a former Colorado Sun writer. She left the publication in June 2020.
Email: Twitter: @moe_clark15