For Some Colorado Lawmakers, The Death Penalty Debate Is Personal

17 hours ago
Originally published on March 17, 2019 8:26 am

The death penalty, and whether to repeal it, is likely to be one of the weightiest topics Colorado's legislature will debate this session and advocates believe this is the best chance they've had in years to abolish it. It's on the legislative agenda across the country and California's Gov. Gavin Newsom last week put a moratorium on the death penalty.

Democrats, who are pushing for the repeal, hold the majority in the Colorado statehouse.

Yet, for Democratic state Sen. Rhonda Fields, the death penalty is not just a question of policy. Of the three men on death row in the state, two are there for the murder of her son Javad Marshall Fields and his fiancée, Vivian Wolfe. They were killed days before Javad was set to testify as a witness in a murder trial.

"It's just a part of my experience," Fields says. "It's a part of who I am as a lawmaker. It's a constant pain I live with every day. It's something that you ... don't get over, you just live through."

And when it comes to repealing the death penalty, Fields will be voting against the majority of her party. As it's written, the bill would apply only to future cases, but the new Democratic governor, Jared Polis, told Colorado Public Radio he would take the bill's passing as a strong indication that those on death row should have their sentences commuted to life in prison.

"What kind of justice is that for Javad and Vivian who were doing their civic responsibility by cooperating with the police?" asks Fields. "Their whole future was ahead of them and they were ambushed and murdered."

Fields isn't alone in that thinking. Democratic Rep. Tom Sullivan's son, Alex, was one of the 12 people murdered in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting. Sullivan supported prosecutors' push for the death penalty for James Holmes. Even though a jury ultimately decided against it, Sullivan said he's glad it was an option. He doesn't want to tell any other family in a similar situation that they can't seek what they feel is justice.

Tom Sullivan, father of Alex Sullivan, who was killed in the Aurora movie theater shooting in 2012, talks about his son during a gun control rally. Sullivan was elected to the state House in November.
Rod Lamkey / Getty Images

"Even after the fact there was no remorse from what he had done," Sullivan says of Holmes. "There's every indication if he were to have another chance at this, he would try to do it again. We have a mechanism if those people don't want to be a part of our society; we should have the ability to take those people out of our society."

Democratic bill sponsor Sen. Angela Williams is aware of her colleagues' personal reasons for supporting the death penalty but remains unswayed by their arguments.

"I'm approaching this with all due respect in the situation that [Fields] and Tom Sullivan have been in."

Williams believes the death penalty is too costly, and immoral. She's Catholic and says her religious faith has played a big role in her decision. She also feels it is not applied fairly. As a black woman, she worries for her son and other people of color.

"The three men who are African-American that sit on death row now — they are all from Arapahoe County. They all went to the same high school," Williams says. "Where you live and the color of your skin and how much money you have depends whether or not you get the death penalty."

In Colorado, it's been rare for prosecutors to seek the death penalty and even more rare for juries to impose it. The state has only executed one person since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976: Gary Lee Davis in 1997.

Democratic state Sen. Angela Williams, one of two Senate sponsors of a bill to repeal the death penalty in Colorado, listens to witnesses during a Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday March 6, 2019.
Hart Van Denburg / Colorado Public Radio News

Democrats have a slim majority in the Senate. With Fields and other Democrats waivering, they could need some GOP votes to pass the repeal.

If it makes it to the House, the bill will be on firmer footing; Democrats have a wider edge in that chamber. Yet, some of those members are grappling with what to do, too. Democratic Rep. Dominique Jackson covered crime extensively as a television reporter for 20 years.

"I have seen the crimes. I have been in the courtrooms. I have spent time with the families on both sides, be it the victim or the perpetrator," she says. "And I've witnessed an individual dying by lethal injection."

Jackson witnessed the execution of Jaturun Siripongs in 1999 in California. She says that, at the time, she didn't find the experience traumatic because she was just there to take down the facts. But all these years later, she can still vividly recall it.

"I remember the smells. I remember the footsteps walking down the hallways in San Quentin. I remember the eerie green glow of the lights in the hallway, and I remember that man's chest rising and falling."

As she tries to make up her mind, Jackson says she'll make sure to listen to all sides in the ongoing debate, including the different ways the death penalty shaped the lives of her colleagues.

Copyright 2019 CPR News. To see more, visit CPR News.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Fifty dead - that is the death toll of the attack on two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch. More than 20 others remain in the hospital. The victims were fathers and mothers and children and friends, many looking for a new life in New Zealand. Now a community is grieving. The alleged shooter is a 28-year-old Australian man who livestreamed his attack on Facebook. He appeared in court on Friday and flashed a white power sign. NPR's Rob Schmitz is in Christchurch. And he brings us this profile of a city picking up the pieces.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: It's Sunday morning breakfast at the Rasol-O-Allah Islamic Center, the only mosque in Christchurch that wasn't attacked on Friday. Five men sit on the floor surrounding a carpet filled with plates of naan, potatoes and cups of black tea. They're from all over the world - Afghanistan, Pakistan, Fiji. And they all became citizens of New Zealand for the same reason. Here, they believed, they could practice their faith in peace. That belief has now been shaken.

AJAD ALI: They all are, of course, crying. And they are really hurt.

SCHMITZ: Imam Ajad Ali (ph) just flew in from Auckland. Several of his friends were among the 50 people who were killed. He's come to console their families.

ALI: And many of them have seen the videos of the killer, who actually recorded everything and sent to the social media. And that's affecting them a lot as well.

SCHMITZ: It's affecting everyone in Christchurch, population 400,000, dubbed the garden city of New Zealand. In front of the botanical gardens, residents have left thousands of flowers, candles and letters pledging support for their Muslim neighbors. Alan Truman (ph) brought flowers from his own garden. He says the last tragedy here was the 2011 earthquake that killed nearly 200 people. But this feels worse.

ALAN TRUMAN: The earthquakes were one thing. This is just - this is human. This is hatred. We're a proud city. We're resilient. But this has just rocked us to our knees.

SCHMITZ: Sheikh Faraz (ph) is dealing with the pain through constant work. He's making airport runs, picking up Muslims who arrive every hour from throughout New Zealand. It was at the mosque Faraz attended where most of the people were killed, many his friends. He hasn't slept in two days. He says he and his wife don't know how to process the pain.

SHEIKH FARAZ: We were crying and crying. And we can't cry anymore. We just, like - and we can't sleep either. It just - and then the kids asking, what's going on, dad? And I said, oh, there's - you know, something's gone wrong not right. And we're trying to make it right, but it's - and we don't want to let them know what's happened. It's, like, I don't know how we do talk to them about it, you know?

SCHMITZ: Faraz went grocery shopping yesterday and began to panic. He kept thinking someone is going to shoot up the market. He says he's never felt this way before, nor has Methon Noor (ph), an immigrant from Bangladesh.

METHON NOOR: Now it's, like, not - feel not safe here because we thinking somewhere, somebody come in, can shoot again.

SCHMITZ: Noor says there aren't many Bangladeshis here, so his friends were like family. On Friday, five of them were murdered. A sixth, his best friend Gakira (ph), is still missing, but he thinks he's dead, too.

NOOR: Last night, we was in hospital. They was told us this morning we'd get the final information finally. But it's still not happening this. We are still waiting here.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: One person does not represent us all.

SCHMITZ: Inside the crisis center for families of the victims, a Christian group of Maori, New Zealand's indigenous people, have arrived. They show support through dance.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in foreign language).

SCHMITZ: It's a traditional Haka dance and an emotional one. Several of the Maori men performing it do so through tears, prompting others to cry, too.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in foreign language).

(APPLAUSE)

SCHMITZ: There are hundreds of family members here and dozens of survivors. A man in his 50s told me when the shooting started, bodies piled up on top of him, and he's not sure how he wasn't hit with a bullet. Another man, Adan (ph) from Somalia, told me after his young son was shot and the gunman had fled, he picked up his boy and cradled him in his arms. As the boy lay dying, Adan says he kept whispering into his son's ear, God is sufficient. He is my protector. God is sufficient. He is my protector.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Christchurch.

(SOUNDBITE OF CUONG VU 4-TET'S "ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.