Recent Legislative Activity

Colorado Continues Death Penalty With Legislators Evenly Split on Repeal

A bill to repeal the death penalty and use the funds saved to investigate unsolved murder cases in Colorado was defeated in the state senate by a vote of 18-17 on May 6.  The House had earlier approved the bill by a vote of 33-32.  On May 4, the senate had approved an amendment, dropping the repeal of the death penalty and funding the cost of investigating cold cases through a $2.50 fine to convicted felons.  However, the conference committee restored the repeal provision and the senate rejected the committee's proposal after an impassioned debate.  The repeal bill’s co-sponsor, Senator Morgan Carroll, expressed concerns about the risks of the death penalty, including executing the innocent. “In a democracy,” she said, “the decisions of the state come with blood on all of our hands in the event that we are wrong.” In all, 50 legislators voted for repeal, and 50 voted against repeal. 

Colorado's House Passes Bill to Repeal the Death Penalty; Money Saved Would Go to Cold Cases

On April 20, Colorado’s House voted 33-32 to repeal the death penalty.  The bill, which now heads to the Senate, would shift funds used to prosecute cases and maintain the death penalty to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation for closing unsolved murder cases. Proponents of the bill believe the state would save close to $4 million by repealing the death penalty, and dozens of family members with unsolved murder cases testified that those funds could be better used solving cold cases. While there has been only one execution in Colorado in the past 40 years, there are currently 1,435 unsolved murders across the state. “This is a very heartening development, not only for the families of these victims whose killers have never been prosecuted, but also for all the Coloradans who live in the communities that have been terrorized by the realization that we have killers walking among us and murderers living in our neighborhoods,” said Howard Morton, executive director of Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons. “This vote by the House sends the strong message that we will no longer take a passive approach to old, unsolved murders. Colorado now intends to be proactive in going after these killers.”  Gov. Bill Ritter has not yet announced if he would sign the bill into law if it made it to his desk.

LEGISLATION: Virginia Senate Upholds Governor's Veto of Death Penalty Expansion

The Virginia Senate upheld Gov. Tim Kaine’s vetoes of proposals to expand capital punishment on April 8.  The Senate vote fell short of the two-thirds needed to override Gov. Kaine’s vetoes of the bills that would have extended capital punishment to murder accomplices who were not the actual killer and to those who kill on-duty fire marshals and auxiliary police officers.  This marks the third consecutive year that Gov. Kaine has vetoed bills to expand capital punishment to accomplices.  “Virginia, we execute enough people.  We don’t need to expand it,” explained Kaine.

EDITORIALS: Hartford Courant Calls for End to Connecticut's Death Penalty

The Hartford Courant has called for an end to the death penalty in Connecticut, citing its costs and risks.  The paper called a legislative committee’s work toward abolishing Connecticut’s death penalty “brave,” and said the state’s capital punishment system was “unworkable, not to mention expensive, unfair, and risky.”  They quoted State Sen. Mary Anne Handley who said: "The death penalty is neither swift nor certain. It may even be certain that it's not going to happen."  The editorial concluded, “The state's goal should be to keep society safe. It can accomplish that without the expectation of executions that rarely if ever take place.”  The full editorial may be read below:

STUDIES: The Application of the Death Penalty in New Mexico

A study by attorney Marcia Wilson was recently published in the New Mexico Law Review: “The Application of the Death Penalty in New Mexico, July 1979 through December 2007: An Empirical Analysis.”  Wilson's research reveals new information on how the death penalty was applied in New Mexico after its reinstatement.  The article was published before New Mexico repealed the death penalty in March 2009, and served as valuable information during the legislative debate.  Wilson concluded, “The numbers and percentages here suggest that the imposition of the death penalty in New Mexico is still influenced by legally irrelevant issues such as where or when the crime was committed and the race or ethnicity of the victim and the defendant.” 

Between 1979 through 2007 in New Mexico:

  • 211 death penalty cases filed
  • 203 were resolved by the end of 2007
  • 9 cases were dismissed before trial
  • 47.8% of the resolved cases ended with a plea bargain and a sentence less than death
  • 46.9% of the resolved cases went to trial
  • 25% of the resolved cases had a penalty trial
  • 15 people were sentened to death
  • 2 defendants remained on death row still challenging their death sentence
  • 1 defendant was executed (after dropping his appeals).

Maryland Legislature Passes Bill Restricting Use of Death Penalty

On March 26, the Maryland House of Delegates approved a bill requiring specific evidence of guilt if the death penalty is sought.  The same bill was passed earlier by the Senate, and the governor supports the legislation.  Calling it a "step forward," Gov. O’Malley indicated he will sign the bill, limiting capital cases to those with biological or DNA evidence of guilt, a videotaped confession, or a videotape linking the defendant to a homicide.  The restrictions derived from an amendment during the Senate’s consideration of a bill to abolish the death penalty.  The current bill is designed to lessen the possibility of executing an innocent person. Maryland has executed five prisoners since reinstating the death penalty in 1978 and has five other inmates on death row.

New Mexico to Save Money After Abolition of Death Penalty

A cost assessment prepared for the New Mexico legislature prior to its vote on repealing the death penalty indicated some of the money that would be saved if the bill was passed.  The state will save several million dollars each year, according to the fiscal impact report by the Public Defender Department. For example, in the case of State v. Young, the public defender office expended $1.7 million.  They estimated that the total cost to the state would be three times that much when the costs to the prosecution and to the courts are factored in. In the end, the state Supreme Court barred the state from pursuing the death penalty further because insufficient resources were being provided for the defense.

Citing just one part of the death penalty process, jury selection, the report noted, "Jury selection is a long, arduous process that potentially touches on the constitutional and religious rights of New Mexicans, and costs at least four times as much as a non-death first-degree murder case." 

Death Penalty Abolished in New Mexico--Governor Says Repeal Will Make the State Safer

Governor Bill Richardson signed the bill abolishing the death penalty in New Mexico on March 18.  New Mexico now becomes the 15th state to abandon capital punishment and the 3rd in the last 2 years, following recent actions in New Jersey and New York in 2007. The new law substitutes the punishment of life without parole for the death penalty in future cases.  In a statement, Gov. Richardson cited the 130 inmates freed from death row since 1973 and added, "The sad truth is the wrong person can still be convicted in this day and age, and in cases where that conviction carries with it the ultimate sanction, we must have ultimate confidence, I would say certitude, that the system is without flaw or prejudice. Unfortunately, this is demonstrably not the case.Many family members of murder victims applauded the repeal: “This is recognition of the false promise that the death penalty offered, and a realization of how murder victims’ family members’ needs can truly be served,” said Lorry Post, Executive Director of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation (MVFR). Cathy Ansheles of Santa Fe and a member of MVFR, reacted to the bill’s passage, “It’s a great relief to know that families will no longer be put through the turmoil of the death penalty. Finally, resources can be directed to where they will really do the most good.”