A new poll from Public Policy Polling, which is generally considered a Democratic-aligned polling outfit but has won many plaudits for accuracy over the years, has a new poll out challenging the conventional wisdom that Colorado voters overwhelmingly favor capital punishment. As the Denver Post’s John Frank reports:
Colorado voters appear split on whether the death penalty should remain in place, a new poll finds, a result that may indicate support for capital punishment is softening in the state.
The survey comes amid a conversation about the future of the death penalty in Colorado after juries in two high-profile trials opted against imposing it.
Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, asked voters last week whether the state should replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole. The survey found 47.2 percent favor keeping the death penalty and 42.9 percent want to replace it — a difference that is essentially within the margin of error of 4.3 percentage points.
An additonal 10 percent remained undecided, according to the poll, which was commissioned by the Better Priorities Initiative, a Colorado-based group that opposes the death penalty.
A press release from the Better Priorities Initiative quotes Boulder DA Stan Garnett:
“This poll shows that Coloradans have grown weary of this wasteful government program that prolongs victims’ suffering, provides little to no deterrent effect, and ultimately yields no executions,” said Stan Garnett, District Attorney for the 20th Judicial District. “As Coloradans continue to have this statewide conversation about the death penalty, they are concluding they can live without it.”
These findings come on the heels of the state’s two highest profile death penalty cases in many years. In both cases, the death-qualified juries determined that life in prison without the possibility of parole was the appropriate sentence for the perpetrators instead of death by lethal injection. The juries’ rejection of the death penalty in both the Aurora theatre shooting and the Fero’s Bar stabbing fall in line with national trends that show a marked decrease in the number of death sentences handed down by juries, which reached a 40-year low nationwide in 2014.
Garnett went on to say, “As a District Attorney who has the responsibility of managing a large office of lawyers and staff, I always focus on what is efficient and what keeps my community safe. The reality is that the death penalty is wasteful and does nothing to make our communities safer. Tough and focused prosecutors across Colorado are coming to the same conclusion.”
The poll stands in marked contrast to another poll taken during the recently-concluded trial of the Aurora theater shooter, in which over 60% percentage of respondents indicated they favored the death penalty in that case. The most recent round of debates over the death penalty has raged in Colorado since well before this summer, however, after Gov. John Hickenlooper granted a reprieve to the so-called “Chuck E. Cheese killer” who had been scheduled to be executed in 2013.
It was widely assumed that Hickenlooper’s decision to grant a reprieve in that case would cost him politically. In last year’s gubernatorial election, GOP opponent Bob Beauprez used Hickenlooper’s decision in campaign ads to paint the incumbent as “soft on crime”–a similar tactic to what Beauprez had unsuccessfully tried against Bill Ritter in 2006. It didn’t work, in part because Beauprez’s ugly negative campaign had begun to backfire on a variety of issues.
Or maybe the issue just doesn’t have the purchase with voters that we all thought?
Today’s poll asked Coloradans what they think would be the most important issue in deciding how to vote for their state legislator next year. The death penalty barely registered, with only 5% of voters saying the issue would guide their vote, and other issues like the economy and health care scoring far higher. This again would seem to indicate that the death penalty is not nearly the marquee issue that Republicans have claimed–against Hickenlooper, or in support of either the policy or politicians like George Brauchler who have significant political capital invested in support for capital punishment.
The death penalty is one of those emotive issues where polling can swing wildly based on contemporary issues. When it seemed likely that the Aurora shooter would receive it, polling suggests voters liked it better. Now that the death penalty has failed to be applied in our state, in two cases where conventional wisdom would surely suggest the law warranted it?
It’s possible this debate has entered a new phase.