Colorado Abolishes the Death Penalty


Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill abolishing the death penalty in Colorado today, making it the 22nd state to repeal capital punishment.

The bill passed the state Senate in January and passed the House on February 26. It removes the death penalty as a sentencing option for Class 1 felonies for offenses charged on or after July 1, 2020.

Colorado’s last execution was in 1997—and it was the only execution the state has carried out since the death penalty was reinstated.

Gov. Polis also commuted the sentences of the three men currently on Colorado’s death row.

The U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976 after finding it didn’t violate the Eighth Amendment’s cruel and unusual punishment clause in part because only 10 states had abolished capital punishment. The Eighth Amendment “draw[s] its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” The Court measures evolving standards by looking at “objective indicia that reflect the public attitude toward a given sanction.” The decisions of state legislatures are strong indicators of the people’s moral values—which is why the national trend away from the death penalty and Colorado’s new legislation in particular is so significant.

Half of U.S. states have now abolished the death penalty or halted executions, the Death Penalty Information Center reports, and executions and death sentences remain near historic lows.

Ten of the 22 states that have abolished the death penalty have done so since 2004New Jersey (2007), New York (2007), New Mexico (2009), Illinois (2011), Connecticut (2012), Maryland (2013), Delaware (2016), Washington (2018), New Hampshire (2019), and Colorado (2020).

Last year, California joined Oregon (2011) and Pennsylvania (2015) in imposing a moratorium on executions.

Alabama continues to be an outlier. On March 5, it executed a man who did not pull the trigger—even though prosecutors could not persuade 12 jurors that death was the appropriate sentence. Unlike nearly every other state that has capital punishment, Alabama allows elected trial judges to impose the death penalty even if the jury does not unanimously choose death.