Colorado May End Death Penalty to Focus on Cold Cases

Colorado and nine other states considered abolishing the death penalty this year to save money, but Colorado's proposal has a twist: It would use the savings to investigate about 1,400 unsolved slayings.

The measure has sparked a fierce debate between prosecutors and some victims' families. Prosecutors want to keep capital punishment as an option for heinous crimes, and they say the bill has raised unrealistic hopes about solving cold cases.

Supporters of the bill say it's more important to find and prosecute killers still on the loose than to execute the ones already tried and convicted.

"The death penalty is not relevant without a murderer brought to trial," said Laurie Wiedeman, the older sister of 17-year-old Gay Lynn Dixon, whose 1982 slaying remains unsolved. "I would like to see the person who killed my sister put to death. But to have that person free to run around and committing other crimes?"

Abolishing the death penalty would save an estimated $1 million a year in Colorado now spent on prosecutors' time, public defenders' fees and appeals, according to a legislative analysis. Supporters of the Colorado measure want that money diverted to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation's cold case unit, which has just one staffer. The extra money could add eight people to the unit, the legislative analysis said.

The Colorado House narrowly passed the measure in late April, and the Senate is expected to vote before the session ends Wednesday.

Gov. Bill Ritter hasn't publicly said whether he would sign it, if it passes. Ritter was Denver's district attorney before becoming governor, and in that job he unsuccessfully sought capital punishment seven times. Before becoming district attorney in 1993, Ritter had expressed personal doubts about capital punishment.

Colorado Attorney General John Suthers and all but one of the state's district attorneys oppose the bill. Even if the savings were applied to a cold case unit, which Suthers and other said isn't guaranteed by the bill, many cases may remain unsolved.

"I think it's a sad situation," Suthers said. "You have hundreds of ... parents of murdered children, sitting there being led to believe that if they abolish the death penalty in Colorado their child's death will be solved.

"A million dollars doesn't buy you a lot of cold case investigation," he said.

Proponents of the bill, led by Evergreen-based Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons, say Colorado's death penalty is so rarely used that it's not a deterrent. The group says hundreds of thousands of dollars are wasted trying to put people to death when hundreds of murderers are free.

Suthers and other prosecutors say additional DNA testing, including a proposal pending in the Legislature to take samples at the time of a felony arrest, could do more than expanding the state's cold case unit to solve old cases.

Colorado has executed only one person in the past 42 years, Gary Lee Davis, put to death in 1997 for his conviction in a 1986 slaying.

Two men remain on Colorado's death row. Sir Mario Owens was convicted last year of killing Javad Marshall-Fields, a potential witness in a murder trial, and Vivian Wolfe, Marshall-Fields' fiancee. Nathan Dunlap was convicted in 1996 of murder, attempted murder and other charges for killing four people and wounding a fifth at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in Aurora in December 1993.

Both cases are in the appeals process.

The mothers of Marshall-Fields and Wolfe support the death penalty.

New Mexico this year became the second state to abolish the death penalty since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976. New Jersey abolished the death penalty in 2007.

Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire and Texas considered abolishing the death penalty, but bills in those states have stalled, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.

"It (budgetary concerns) was a prominent issue and an impetus for these bills getting hearings this year," Dieter said.

Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons documented 1,434 unsolved slayings in Colorado since 1970, and a CBI database for law enforcement closely matches those numbers

"We have 1,400 murderers walking around. We don't feel threatened by it, but we should," said Frank Birgfeld, whose 34-year-old daughter Paige Birgfeld disappeared from Grand Junction in July 2007 and is presumed dead.

But cold cases become harder to solve as time passes. In February, 65-year-old Tina Louise Lester was arrested in Ohio on a 1968 warrant in a Denver shooting death, but District Attorney Mitch Morrissey decided against filing charges because of the lack of witnesses who could counter Lester's self-defense claim.

"Two men in that bar, who are pivotal witnesses would have been in their late 80s," Morrissey said.

Morrissey said Denver's 11-person cold case unit sometimes identifies a suspect who is already serving a lengthy prison sentence or is dead. That brings some answers to victims' families but not the definitive conclusion of a conviction.

"Just because we're grieving doesn't mean we're stupid," said Howard Morton, executive director of Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons, whose 19-year-old son Guy Oliver was the victim of a still-unsolved 1975 slaying in Arizona.

"We want these cases to be effectively addressed by the state. We know they won't all be solved," he said. "We think that some of them will be, and more importantly it sends a signal that for those who have gotten away with murder, we're coming after you."