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Colorado: Is death penalty a deterrence?

Bill Scanlon
bill.scanlon@indenvertimes.com
Denver, CO Colorado

Does the threat of execution deter people from murdering others?

In the wake of the Colorado House of Representatives’ 33-32 vote Tuesday to repeal the death penalty, that question is sure to be debated. The Senate now takes up the bill.

The FBI’s crime statistics clearly show that states that have abolished the death penalty have a much lower rate of murder than those that retain capital punishment.



But did the one cause the other? Or, are some states, or regions, more prone to violence, so much so that to prevent even more murders, the death penalty must be in place as a deterrent?

The nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, using FBI data, shows that the murder rate per 100,000 people in 2007 ranged from New Hampshire’s 1.1 to Louisiana’s 14.2. Colorado’s murder rate was the 17th lowest among the 50 states. (For a death penalty fact sheet, click here.)

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The average murder rate in death-penalty states was 5.5; the average murder rate in states without the death penalty was 3.1. That’s a 77 percent higher rate for states with the death penalty.

By region, the South’s murder rate is 71 percent higher than the Northeast’s, with the West and Midwest in the mid-range.

Every state in the South has the death penalty, while most states in the Northeast have abolished it.



The wild card is Washington, D.C., which doesn’t have the death penalty, but has the highest murder rate in the nation.

State Rep. Paul Weissmann, D-Louisville, said he sponsored the repeal bill because keeping a criminal on death row is so expensive. Just one person has been put to death in Colorado in the past 40 years, he noted. Under the bill, the money saved from not having to go through expensive prosecutions and repeals and from the reduction in prison costs would be used instead to solve cold cases.

“I think it makes much more sense to spend our limited resources to try to solve some of the 1,435 unsolved homicides rather than having an expensive death penalty that we seldom use,” Weissmann said after the vote.

He said his bill would fully fund a statewide homicide cold case team and still leave $880,000 unspent.

Colorado Attorney General John Suthers opposes the repeal effort, as does the Colorado District Attorney’s Council. Weissmann noted, howeverm that the only DA who aggressively pursues the death penalty is Carol Chambers in the 18th Judicial District, which includes Arapahoe County. Chambers could not be reached for comment.

The deciding vote Tuesday was cast by former DA investigator Rep. Ed Vigil, D-Fort Garland, who told fellow lawmakers that he agonized over his decision because he believes the death penalty can be a good tool to get murder convictions, but wonders if it is morally wrong. He eventually voted to repeal the death penalty.

The Death Penalty Information Center cites a survey of criminologists which found that 80 percent of them don’t believe the death penalty is a proven deterrent to homicide.

Some recent studies have found a small deterrent effect with the death penalty, but others have not.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the DPIC, testified last year in Maryland that the extra cost rung up by the death penalty is approximately $2.3 million per case. The average time nationwide between conviction and carrying out of the death penalty is 101/2 years.

He cited a Gallup Poll that found that 69 percent of Americans favor the death penalty in some cases, but noted that is a drop from the 80 percent support level in the mid-1990s.


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