Death Penalty in Colorado

Colorado law allows for the death penalty in only a handful of class 1 felonies, including murder or kidnapping. In such cases, decision, whether to impose death, rests with the jury or judge at a separate sentencing hearing after the defendant pleads guilty or is found guilty at trial. Since the introduction of the death penalty in Colorado in 1977, the state has only executed one person (Gary Lee Davis in 1977).

Below, our Colorado criminal defense lawyers will explain:

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1. What is the Death Penalty in Colorado?

The death penalty is a sentence for a criminal conviction where the convicted individual is put to death. The death penalty, also known as capital punishment, is limited to certain Class 1 felony crimes.1 Under Colorado law, upon conviction of a Class 1 felony, the trial court conducts a separate sentencing hearing to determine whether the defendant should be sentenced to death or life imprisonment.2

Individuals sentenced to death in Colorado end up waiting on death row at the Colorado State Penitentiary near Cañon City, Colorado. There are a few individuals in Colorado who have been sentenced to the death, and they have spent years on death row awaiting execution. Since 1988, the state has adopted lethal injection as the method of execution.

Although a number of people have been sentenced to death row in Colorado throughout the state's history, in recent decades very few people have been put to death. Since the state reinstated the death penalty in 1975, only one person has been put to death, after he was convicted of kidnapping and murder.

2. What Crimes are Punishable by Death in Colorado?

Capital offense charges in Colorado are limited to Class 1 felonies. The maximum penalty for Class 1 felonies is death and the minimum penalty is life in prison. There is no mandatory parole for Class 1 felonies in Colorado. These offenses include:

However, even if convicted of one of the above offenses, some individuals cannot be sentenced to death in Colorado. No one under the age of 18 can be executed. Additionally, no one who is mentally incompetent can be sentenced to death. “A convicted person may be found mentally incompetent to be executed only on clear and convincing evidence of such condition.”3

3. Who Decides to Impose a Death Sentence?

In a Class 1 felony case, such as first-degree murder, or murder of a police officer, the defendant is entitled to a sentencing hearing to determine whether they will be sentenced to life in prison or the death penalty. This hearing may be held before the jury who found the defendant guilty, complete with alternate jurors. However, if the defendant pleads guilty to the charge, or waived his or her right to a jury trial, the sentencing hearing may be held before a judge.

In deciding what sentence to impose, all admissible evidence may be presented, including evidence relevant to the nature of the crime and history, background and character of the defendant. Evidence may also include any matters relating to aggravating or mitigating factors. Aggravating factors are seen as increasing the severity of the criminal offense.4 Mitigating factors generally lessen the culpability or severity of the crime. 5

Aggravating Factors

  • Defendant was previously convicted of a class 1 or 2 felony crime of violence
  • Defendant was under sentence of imprisonment for a class 1, 2, or 3 felony
  • Victim was a peace officer, firefighter, judge, or federal enforcement agent
  • Victim was pregnant
  • Victim was a child under the age of 12
  • The defendant killed a person they kidnapped or held hostage
  • Use of an explosive, chemical, biological, or radiological weapon
  • The defendant was trying to avoid arrest or prosecution or trying to escape from custody
  • Motivated by financial gain

Mitigating Factors

  • The age of the defendant at the time of the crime
  • Capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of his or her actions
  • The defendant was under unusual or substantial duress
  • Participation in the crime was relatively minor
  • Lack of criminal history
  • Cooperation with law enforcement
  • Influence of drugs or alcohol
  • Lack of his or her threat to society
  • A good faith belief that there was a moral justification for his or her conduct.

After evaluating the evidence, the jury will deliberate on whether the convict should be sentenced to death or life imprisonment. In order to find for the death penalty, a unanimous vote of 12 jurors is necessary. If any of the jurors do not agree on the death penalty, the defendant may be sentenced to life in prison.

4. If Convicted, How Long Before the Individual is Put to Death?

After an individual is sentenced to death in Colorado, it may still take years before they are put to death, if it happens at all. There are a number of factors that affect how long it takes before someone is given lethal injection after a conviction. Death row convicts often appeal their trials and sentences. These appeals can take years and may result in the death sentence being reversed or changed to a sentence of life in prison.

Over the past few decades, the death penalty has been only used once in the state of Colorado. In that case, Gary Lee Davis was sentenced to death on July 21, 1987. There were appeals to the state and federal level, which each confirmed the lower court ruling. Davis was executed in October of 1997, more than 10 years after he was convicted.

As of early 2017, there are currently three individuals on death row in Colorado. One of those inmates has been on death row for more than 20 years, and two others have been on death row for almost ten years each.

There are a number of reasons it can take a long time before the state eventually hands down the ultimate punishment. After an individual is put to death, there is no bringing them back. This is why the state has to be absolutely certain that the crime in question warrants such a serious penalty.

Statistically, the death penalty has not been applied to all individuals equally. Poor and minority individuals have a higher chance of being sentenced to death, even for similar crimes as other defendants. Appeals to higher courts provide an additional check on the judicial system, to make sure there was no misconduct on the part of the prosecutor, jury, or judge at the trial level.

Call us for help...

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If you or a loved one are facing criminal charges in Colorado, please contact us at Colorado Legal Defense Group. Our caring Colorado criminal defense lawyers have years of experience protecting clients accused of misdemeanor and felony criminal offenses. Dealing with a criminal arrest is a stressful experience. But you don't have to go it alone. Contact us for a free consultation.


Legal References

  1. "Upon conviction of guilt of a defendant of a class 1 felony, the trial court shall conduct a separate sentencing hearing to determine whether the defendant should be sentenced to death or life imprisonment, unless the defendant was under the age of eighteen years at the time of the commission of the offense or unless the defendant has been determined to be a mentally retarded defendant pursuant to part 11 of this article, in either of which cases, the defendant shall be sentenced to life imprisonment." C.R.S. 18-1.3-1201(1)(a)
  2. C.R.S. 18-1.3-1201
  3. C.R.S. 18-1.3-1402
  4. C.R.S. 18-1.3-1201(5)
  5. C.R.S. 18-1.3-1201(4)

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