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Colorado governor signs death penalty repeal, orders 3 men off death row

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed a measure Monday outlawing the death penalty in Colorado and commuted the sentences of three killers on death row.

The change gave Nathan Dunlap, Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray sentences of life without the possibility of parole. The law adds Colorado to the 21 states and the District of Columbia that repealed death penalty statutes. Four states, including Colorado, have imposed moratoriums on executions.

Backers of the repeal claim it has been used disproportionately against African Americans. Those who opposed the repeal pointed to cases such as that of Christopher Watts of Frederick, who murdered his wife, Shanann, and their two young daughters in 2018. The death penalty was taken off the table after he led law enforcement officers to the oil field where he had disposed of their bodies.

Repeal supporters succeeded where efforts failed in the past, including in 2019. Three Senate Republicans voted in favor of the bill on Jan. 31.

The 19-13 vote included “no” votes from Democratic Sens. Jessie Danielson, D-Wheat Ridge, and Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora. Fields became a state lawmaker after her son and his fiancée were murdered.

In the House, SB 100 passed on a 38-27 vote that included three Democrats who voted no: Reps. Kyle Mullica of Thornton, Tom Sullivan of Centennial and Brianna Titone of Arvada.

One of those Democratic opponents was Centennial Rep. Tom Sullivan, whose son, Alex, died in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting — a case where the death penalty was sought but rejected by an Arapahoe County jury.

Two of the killers leaving death row, Ray and Owens, were convicted of the 2005 murders of Javad Marshall-Fields and his fiance, Vivian Wolfe. Dunlap was convicted of murdering four people at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in Aurora in 1993. The four were Ben Grant, 17; Sylvia Crowell, 19; Colleen O’Connor, 17 and Margaret Kohlbert, 50. A fifth person, Bobby Stephens, survived the shooting.

District Attorney George Brauchler of the 18th Judicial District, who prosecuted the Aurora theater shooter, said in a statement that the governor disregarded state law in commuting the sentences. All three cases were prosecuted in the 18th Judicial District.

Colorado Revised Statute 16-17-102 makes clear that the governor must submit any application for commutation to the involved district attorney and make efforts to seek the comments of the actual prosecutors from the criminal case before approving such applications.

“This governor has never reached out to me or any member of the prosecution team, all of whom are still in the area, for any comments, consultation or input of any kind before rescuing these heinous, cold-blooded murderers from their earned sentences,” Brauchler said.

Brauchler also pointed out that Polis commuted the sentences of Owens and Ray even though neither had ever applied for commutation. Their cases are still in the appellate process, Brauchler pointed out.

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