New Study Shows Discrimination in Colorado Prosecutors' Use of Death Penalty

new study to be published in the University of Denver Law Review shows that whether prosecutors seek the death penalty in Colorado "depends to an alarming extent on the race and geographic location of the defendant." The study - based upon 10 years of data collected by attorney Meg Beardsley and University of Denver law professors Sam Kamin and Justin Marceau and sociology professor Scott Phillips - shows that race and place are statistically significant predictors of whether prosecutors will seek the death penalty in Colorado and that prosecutors are more likely to seek the death penalty against minority defendants than against white defendants. In a press release accompanying the release of the study, the researchers say the data "directly refutes the claims made by elected officials, that racial disparities merely reflect the propensity of certain races to commit more murders." The study also shows that, even after controlling for the rates at which different racial groups commit statutorily death-eligible murders and for the "heinousness" of the murders, non-white defendants and defendants in Colorado’s 18th Judicial District - where the capital trial of James Holmes for the Aurora movie theater killings is taking place - were more likely than others to be capitally prosecuted. 

There have been more than 8,100 homicides in Colorado since 1967, with one execution. The 3 men currently on death row are all African-Americans from Aurora who were under 21 at the time of the crimes. Holmes, who is seriously mentally ill, is white. The authors ultimately conclude that the arbitrariness and disparate impact of Colorado’s death penalty violate the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

(M. Beardsley, et al., "Disquieting Discretion: Race, Geography & the Colorado Death Penalty in the First Decade of the Twenty-First Century," University of Denver Law Review (2015); R. Eastarbrook, "Race and Place Contribute to Colorado Death Penalty Trials, Study Finds," Colorado Public Radio (Aug. 4, 2015); University of Denver News Release, "University of Denver Law Professors Publish Study about Race and Colorado Death Penalty," Aug. 4, 2015.) See Studies, Arbitrariness, and Race.