History of the Death Penalty in Colorado
The first execution in Colorado was the hanging of John Stoefel in 1859. All executions were carried out by hanging until 1934, when the state adopted lethal gas as its new execution method. Colorado switched to lethal injection in 1988.
Current Death Row
Currently there are three African-American men awaiting execution:
1) Nathan Dunlap – who was condemned for shooting and killing Colleen O’Connor, 17; Benjamin Grant, 17; Sylvia Crowell, 19; and night manager Marge Kohlberg, 50 at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant on December 14, 1993.
2) Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray, who were convicted and sentenced to death for the June 2005 shooting of Javad Fields. Owens received an additional death sentence for the killing of Vivian Wolfe, who was with Fields when he was killed. Fields was scheduled to testify in Ray’s trial for accessory to the homicide of Gregory Vann. Both Owens and Ray are litigating the constitutionality and fairness of their convictions and sentences.
On January 7, 2011, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter granted a full and unconditional posthumous pardon to Joe Arridy, who had been convicted and executed as an accomplice to a murder that occurred in 1936. The pardon came 72 years after Arridy’s execution and is the first such pardon in Colorado history. A press release from the governor’s office stated, “[A]n overwhelming body of evidence indicates the 23-year-old Arridy was innocent, including false and coerced confessions, the likelihood that Arridy was not in Pueblo at the time of the killing, and an admission of guilt by someone else.” The governor also pointed to Arridy’s intellectual disabilities. He had an IQ of 46 and functioned like a toddler. The governor said, “Granting a posthumous pardon is an extraordinary remedy. But the tragic conviction of Mr. Arridy and his subsequent execution on Jan. 6, 1939, merit such relief based on the great likelihood that Mr. Arridy was, in fact, innocent of the crime for which he was executed, and his severe mental disability at the time of his trial and execution. Pardoning Mr. Arridy cannot undo this tragic event in Colorado history. It is in the interests of justice and simple decency, however, to restore his good name.”
Milestones in Abolition/Reinstatement
Colorado abolished the death penalty in 1897 and reinstated it in 1901.
- In 2009, the Colorado House of Representatives passed a death penalty abolition bill by a 33-32 vote. The bill failed in the state Senate by a 17-18 vote. The bill would have shifted death penalty prosecution funds to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation for the purpose of solving cold cases. Officials estimate abolishing the death penalty would save the state approximately $1 million a year. There are currently about 1,400 unsolved murder cases in Colorado, but the Colorado Bureau of Investigations cold case unit has only one staff member. The $1 million could add eight people to the unit, proponents claim.
- Colorado’s only execution since 1977 took place in 1997. Gary Lee Davis, 53, received a lethal injection for the 1986 murder of Virginia “Ginny” May.
Following Furman v. Georgia, the death penalty was reinstated on January 1, 1975.
Location of Death Row: Sterling
Location of Executions: Canon City
Governor: John Hickenlooper
Legislative Information: Colorado General Assembly Homepage