Race and the death penalty collide in Colorado

  • Sunday, August 16, 2015 10:06pm
  • Opinion

Denver District Judge John Madden IV was, of course, correct this week when he advised jurors who’d just convicted Dexter Lewis of five murders at a local bar that “another prominent case in our state” — meaning the James Holmes trial — “doesn’t have anything to do with this case.”

From a legal standpoint, that’s true. But outside Madden’s courtroom, the life sentence for Holmes colors everything the jury in the Lewis case does now.

If the jury chooses a life sentence for Lewis, too, it will underline once more the farcically arbitrary nature of capital punishment in Colorado and the urgent need for the legislature and governor to repeal the statute. If the murderers responsible for the massacres at the Aurora theater and Fero’s Bar & Grill don’t deserve the death penalty, then no one does. It is hardly possible to imagine more heinous crimes. Surely the death penalty doesn’t exist solely to handle the unlikely event that a criminal someday will exceed the monstrous depravity of Holmes or Lewis.

A sentence of death for Lewis, meanwhile, will also be awkward for death penalty proponents, whether they wish to admit it or not. And that’s because Lewis is black and Holmes is white — and the only three men now on death row also are black.

We don’t think it’s fair to make too much of this racial angle, since the only two executions in Colorado over the past half century involved white and Hispanic men (1997 and 1967, respectively). And Holmes’ attorneys aggressively emphasized his mental illness, going so far as to push, unsuccessfuly, an insanity defense. But Lewis has his own tale of woe — broken family, dad shot to death in a gang incident when Lewis was four, and a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a defense attorney in 2009.

By contrast, Holmes’ upbringing was idyllic. And he was, after all, found legally sane, capable of knowing the difference between right and wrong. The racial component aside, a death sentence for Lewis at the very least would highlight the capricious manner in which the punishment is applied in this state. It isn’t just Holmes who has escaped death row despite horrific crimes. Killers responsible for some of the most sickening murders in recent decades either have been spared by juries who rejected the death penalty or by prosecutors who failed even to seek it. Its application defies all logic.

Colorado briefly abolished capital punishment in 1897 but brought it back a few years later. It’s time to retire the penalty again — for good.

— Denver Post, Aug. 11

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