Skip to contents
Opinion Columns

Silverman: Plea bargaining with capital punishment as leverage is over now

Colorado’s death penalty died quietly last Monday. Public defenders, Pope Francis, progressive prosecutors and John Hickenlooper paved the way.  But it was Jared Polis who got it done. 

Gov. Polis made the abolition official amidst our COVID-19 crisis. Paradoxically, one day after clearing Colorado’s death row — and commuting those sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole, Polis ordered us all into home detention, where we contemplate our own mortality and governmental decisions that produced our prolonged confinement.

Craig Silverman

Because of COVID-19 news, abolition of Colorado’s death penalty barely made the bottom of the front page of Tuesday’s Denver Post print edition. In normal times, that would have been shocking from this newspaper, which has historically denounced capital punishment

Inside that same Tuesday paper was the story about the COVID-19 related postponement of Colorado’s last-gasp death penalty prosecution.

What an exercise in futility! Even if it’s proved later this year that Dreion Dearing deliberately shot and killed Adams County Deputy Heath Gumm, there’s no way he’ll be executed by the state of Colorado. That train has left the station. 

The possibility of capital punishment no longer exists for Colorado cop killers. The same is true for assassins of judges, elected officials, prosecutors, witnesses, jurors, children, firefighters and pregnant women. 

Such atrocities, even by habitual criminals, means life in prison and nothing more. And the same is so for mass murderers, even if they massacre big numbers like McVeigh, Bin Laden or Hitler.

Capital punishment once seemed so consequential in Colorado. On Nov. 1, 1955, John Gilbert Graham used a dynamite time bomb to blow up a United Airlines plane departing Denver. 

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Forty-four people were killed. Graham was prosecuted by the Denver DA’s Office and sentenced on May 5, 1956 to die. An appeal followed, as did Graham’s execution in Colorado’s gas chamber on Jan. 11, 1957. 

Gary Davis kidnapped, brutalized and then executed Ginny May on July 21, 1986. An Adams County jury voted unanimously for death. Davis waived many appellate rights and was executed by the state of Colorado on Oct. 13, 1997. 

This miserable month of March, Colorado haslearned details of the cruel and heinous slaughter of Gannon Stauch, age 11. Expect a trial. With no death penalty possible, why would the accused killer, Letecia Stauch, ever plead guilty? Chris Watts, who viciously murdered his wife and kids, would not have pleaded guilty and accepted life in prison if he didn’t fear his own execution.

Plea bargaining with capital punishment as leverage is over now. Decades of Colorado death penalty jurisprudence just got discarded along with heartfelt verdicts from conscientious Colorado juries. But the debate will go on at the federal level and likely in a Colorado referendum.

Regardless, the three convicts released from death row by gubernatorial commutations will never be executed. Nathan Dunlap capped off Colorado’s horrifically violent year of 1993 by executing his co-workers at Chuck E. Cheese.

Dunlap had a fair Arapahoe County trial, but that doesn’t matter. Same with Robert Ray and Sir Mario Owens, who were relieved of their death sentences by Gov. Polis. 

Colorado state Sen. Rhonda Fields has every right to be angry.  On June 20, 2005, Ray and Owens assassinated her beautiful beloved son, Javad Marshall Fields, and his bride-to-be, Vivian Wolfe. The murderers’ motive was to silence Javad for being a witness to their July 4, 2004 murder of his friend.  

Even though Fields is a Democrat and in leadership, she is plenty angry at her colleagues and Polis. “It feels despicable,” she told me, and then added, “It feels disgusting.” 

Sen. Fields told me she’d work with death penalty proponents on a ballot measure to reinstate capital punishment. This mother sat through those killers’ trials and she knows how hard-fought and fair those sentences were.

Habitual criminal Frank Rodriguez kidnapped, brutalized and butchered Lorraine Martelli on Nov. 14, 1984. I was the prosecutor in 1986 when Rodriguez’s jury unanimously rendered Denver’s only death verdict in the past 55 years.

Exhaustive appeals followed, none successful, unless you consider the enormous delays engendered. Sixteen years after Martelli’s murder, with his last chance 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals appeal pending, Rodriguez died on death row of disease.

Renowned Colorado lawyer David Lane was one of Rodriguez’s appellate attorneys. Lane, who now represents the accused mass murderer at the El Paso, Texas, Walmart, was thrilled by Polis pulling the plug, telling me, “The death penalty is the embodiment of all the worst traits we have as people.  It embraces violence and vengeance as a legitimate means of solving social problems. 

“It gives the government the power to kill people, which is a power no government should ever have. Abolishing this barbaric relic of a shameful past is a great step forward for the people of the State of Colorado.”

When the jury sentenced Frank Rodriguez to death, I sat at counsel table and instinctively pounded my fist into my Colorado statute book. I felt confident it was a righteous victory for the rule of law. But the fight continued. Colorado law has now changed. 

As Bob Dylan proclaimed, “For the loser now will be later to win, for the times they are a-changin’.”


Craig Silverman is a former Denver chief deputy DA who also has worked in the media for decades. Craig is columnist at large for The Colorado Sun. He practices law at the Denver law firm of Springer & Steinberg, P.C.


The Colorado Sun is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not reflect the opinions of the newsroom. Read our ethics policy for more on The Sun’s opinion policy and submit columns, suggested writers and more to opinion@coloradosun.com.

The Colorado Sun has no paywall, meaning readers do not have to pay to access stories. We believe vital information needs to be seen by the people impacted, whether it’s a public health crisis, investigative reporting or keeping lawmakers accountable.

This reporting depends on support from readers like you. For just $5/month, you can invest in an informed community.