DENVER (Reuters) - Colorado’s governor signed a repeal of the state’s death penalty law on Monday and commuted the sentences of all three death row inmates to life without parole, drawing harsh criticism from a district attorney whose office prosecuted the condemned men.
The action by Governor Jared Polis to sign the repeal was expected, as he had indicated support for abolishing capital punishment as it was being debated in the state legislature last month, but the fate of the death row inmates remained unknown until Monday.
Polis said in a statement that he was sparing the inmates’ lives not due to any change in their individual cases but to reflect the new legislation.
“The commutations of these despicable and guilty individuals are consistent with the abolition of the death penalty in the State of Colorado,” said Polis, a first-term Democrat.
The move was blasted by Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler, whose predecessors secured convictions and death sentences for all three of the death row inmates.
“With a mere stroke of his pen and buried under the coverage of an urgent, global pandemic, Gov Polis wiped away three separate unanimous jury verdicts for some of the worst murderers in our state’s history,” said Brauchler, a Republican.
Colorado has executed just one inmate by lethal injection since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976 after a four-year nationwide moratorium.
Twenty eight states still have death penalty statutes on their books, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Capital punishment also remains in the criminal code of the federal government and U.S. military justice systems.
Since 2004, 22 states have abolished the death penalty through either legislative or court action, according to the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center, which tracks the issue. Five prisoners have been executed in the United States this year.
Under the new Colorado law, state prosecutors will no longer be able to seek capital punishment in any murder case filed after July 1.
The death penalty trial of a man accused of murdering a police officer got underway in a suburban Denver county this month, but was paused until April 6 due to concerns about the coronavirus outbreak.
Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Michael Perry