In the hushed state House chamber, all eyes Tuesday stared up at the vote board, which showed lawmakers deadlocked 32-32 on whether to repeal the death penalty in Colorado.
All but Rep. Edward Vigil's eyes, that is.
The Fort Garland Democrat sat at his desk with a hand held to his forehead, contemplating his suddenly crucial decision.
Heads swiveled in his direction. Whispers filled the silence. Seconds passed.
After nearly a minute, Vigil pushed a green button and, in doing so, pushed House Bill 1274 on to the state Senate in a dramatic 33-32 victory for death-penalty foes at the Capitol.
"Hopefully this will make us a better society in Colorado by not having a death penalty," Vigil said afterward, "though I have my reservations."
The bill would eliminate the death penalty as a sentencing option going forward and would use the projected cost savings to fund a cold-case unit in the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.
House Majority Leader Paul Weissmann, a Louisville Democrat who is the bill's sponsor, said more than 1,000 homicides have gone unsolved in Colorado over the past 40 years, during which Colorado has executed only one convict. He said more than $800,000 in saved money would be left over every year after the state funds the cold-case unit.
"We ought to fund the unit we created two years ago to try to solve some of those unsolved crimes," Weissmann said.
Opponents said the bill takes away a necessary tool for law enforcement officers and prosecutors and said some crimes are so heinous that death is the only appropriate punishment.
Weissmann has carried a nearly identical bill for the past several years at the legislature, but this is as far as the bill has ever advanced in the process. Even if it were to get through the Senate, it is unclear what kind of reception it would receive from Gov. Bill Ritter, a Democrat who is a former prosecutor.
"The governor continues to monitor the bill as it moves through the
Nathan Dunlap killed four people in 1993. legislature," Evan Dreyer, Ritter's spokesman, said in an e-mail Tuesday.
Vigil said he struggled mightily with Tuesday's vote, attempting to balance his beliefs in the moral good of ending the death penalty with the practical good of prosecutors having a tool to use as leverage against suspects.
Rep. Don Marostica of Loveland was the lone Republican to vote for the bill.
"I'm pro-life, and consequently I believe in the sanctity of all human life, and I mean all," Marostica said. "So that's why I voted for it."
The Democrats who voted against it were Edward Casso of Thornton, Kathleen Curry of Gunnison, Jerry Frangas of Denver, Sara Gagliardi of Arvada, Karen Middleton of Aurora and John Soper, of Thornton.
Casso said later that he believes a possible repeal of the death penalty should go to the voters and shouldn't be tied to the funding of the cold-case unit.
The bill has drawn mixed reactions among the relatives of crime victims.
Bob Crowell, whose daughter, Sylvia, was one of four people killed at an Aurora restaurant in 1993, said it would be a mistake to do away with Colorado's death penalty. Sylvia's killer, Nathan Dunlap, is one of two people on Colorado's death row. Those sentences would remain in place if the bill were to pass.
"It is not right to the people of Colorado to do away with the death penalty," said Crowell, who said he hopes that seeing Dunlap put to death will bring him some closure. "I have been working on forgiving
Sir Mario Owens killed a couple in 2005. him, I have partially forgiven him, but the big thing now is not that I want him personally put to death, though I do, but the big thing is we are probably going to have (more) murders."
Attorney General John Suthers, a Republican, also opposes the bill, noting that Colorado has twice voted "overwhelmingly" to approve the death penalty.
For crimes such as terrorism, mass violence and killing witnesses, Suthers said, "it is probably not appropriate to incarcerate someone for life."
A coalition of relatives of unsolved-murder victims applauded the bill.
"This vote by the House sends the strong message that we will no longer take a passive approach to old, unsolved murders," Howard Morton, the executive director of Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons, said in a statement.
"Colorado now intends to be pro-active in going after these killers."
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