UPDATE: The Denver Post’s editorial board says “the death penalty in Colorado has effectively expired.”
There will never be crimes any worse than those committed by Holmes and Lewis. There may be crimes that are their equal in cruelty, but how often are they likely to occur? And why should those criminals be put to death if Holmes and Lewis were not?
Is the death penalty really only for people who commit crimes of similar magnitude who are neither mentally ill nor the product of childhood abuse? How often do such monsters come around?
The death penalty in Colorado has effectively expired. And it didn’t happen because of bleeding-heart lawmakers or activist judges. It happened because juries themselves wanted no part of it.
The Denver Post reports on the final decision yesterday by a jury in yet another Colorado death penalty case, this one in Denver related to the murders of five people in October of 2012 during a botched robbery attempt at Fero’s Bar and Grill:
When a Denver jury on Thursday spared a convicted mass killer the death penalty, a confused silence enveloped the courtroom. Dexter Lewis, who stabbed five people to death in 2012, will spend the rest of his life in prison…
Almost three years after Lewis joined in on a robbery that spiraled into a gruesome massacre, the case came to a blunt and dazed ending.
After deliberating for less than three hours Thursday, at least one member of the jury of 10 women and two men found that the details of Lewis’ life that suggested mercy — including chronic abuse and neglect — outweighed the heinous details of the crime that suggested death.
The decision yesterday to sentence convicted murderer Dexter Lewis to life in prison instead of the death sentence sought by prosecutors comes just weeks after a jury in Arapahoe County failed to agree on a death sentence for the killer in the 2012 Aurora theater massacre. Both of these high-profile cases represent circumstances that the prosecutors believed merited the ultimate punishment. But in both cases, at least one juror could not be convinced, and that ended the question of imposing a death sentence.
Mike Littwin at the Colorado Independent opines today that these outcomes further delegitimize capital punishment as a viable means of seeking justice, even as public polls show the idea of capital punishment still enjoys broad support in this state:
If Lewis and Holmes don’t get death, who does? It’s with that question — and with the near-certain answer — that the conversation almost certainly has to end…
Colorado has executed one person in the past 48 years. It currently has three people on death row. There’s no deterrence argument left, if there ever was one. For that matter, it’s hard to see where there’s a justice argument left.
It’s a punishment that is used so rarely — with decades-long waits on death row for the few assigned there — that any execution now seems to be little more than random, an accident of time or place. And a random punishment, as Supreme Court Justice Steve Breyer recently wrote, can’t, by definition, be just. He called it “the antithesis of justice.”
…John Hickenlooper made that decision himself in the case of Nathan Dunlap, granting him a “temporary reprieve” rather than letting an execution go forward. He didn’t say that Dunlap deserved any form of mercy. He wouldn’t even bring himself to use Dunlap’s name. Hickenlooper said his problem was with the system of capital punishment and whether it delivers the justice that it promises. He said you can’t have an imperfect system and also have justice.
The imperfections are there for all to see, in matters of race, gender and class. It’s no wonder that only seven states executed anyone last year. The botched execution in Oklahoma of Clayton Lockett led the Nebraska legislature, of all places, to end the death penalty there, even overriding a governor’s veto to make it happen.
There’s little question that the outcomes of these two high-profile death penalty cases will affect the debate over capital punishment in Colorado next year: in the legislature, and maybe at the polls as well. It’s worth remembering that at the same time Gov. John Hickenlooper was contemplating a reprieve for the “Chuck E. Cheese killer,” which he granted in May of 2013, his office helped scuttle legislation to repeal the death penalty in Colorado. There were a number of factors that went into Hickenlooper’s tapping the brakes on repeal of the death penalty in 2013, not least the already very ambitious slate of bills that had passed that year–including the hotly controversial gun safety bills that would later provoke recalls against Democrats state senators.
Bottom line: a poll in late July, just before the verdict in the Aurora theater trial, showed that over 60% of Coloradans supported the death penalty in that case. But today, with the Aurora shooter headed to prison for life and now the killer in the gruesome Fero’s Bar massacre also spared the death penalty, the question becomes whether the death penalty still works at all: as a punishment, a deterrent, or even a workable means of obtaining satisfaction for victims. At least one Aurora victim’s relative has been vocal about the wasted effort, expense, and emotional trauma of seeking the death penalty, only for the jury to impose a sentence that defense attorneys had offered over a year before.
At the very least, you have to concede that Hickenlooper’s postponement of the one execution he would have been responsible for looks very different today after these other arguably more vicious killers’ lives have been spared. And as one of the last “civilized” places on earth that still judicially kills people, these events provide context for a debate that may really be, in the long arc of history, in its final stages.