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

More in Opinion

Alaska Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink promotes getting immunized with the flu shot this winter. (Photo courtesy Alaska Department of Health and Social Services)
Immunize when you winterize

An annual flu shot plus the COVID-19 vaccine protects Alaskans and our health care system, too.

(Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: Dunleavy’s first act as governor was unconstitutional

That’s according to a ruling by Senior U.S. District Judge John Sedwick.

This Aug. 3, 2021, photo shows Juneau International Airport.  The Federal Aviation Administration shared recommendations on Thursday for improving aviation safety in the state. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: How the FAA will improve the margin of aviation safety in Alaska

Alaska depends on aviation more than any other state…

Central Peninsula Hospital is seen in Soldotna on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. (Camille Botello/Peninsula Clarion)
Voices of the Peninsula: Perspective of an educator in a ‘high-risk’ group, part 2

During some of the darkest days of my time in ICU, it was obvious where we all live is a special place.

Lawmakers havereturned to the Alaska State Capitol for a fourth special session. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: Revenues should be determined before more PFD spending

The governor believes the dividend drives the entire calculation. Sadly, he has it backwards

Ronnie Leach. (Photo provided)
Point of View: For Domestic Violence Awareness Month, #weareresilient

At the onset of COVID-19, we expanded our services in a way to ensure COVID-19 consciousness.

Rep. Don Young talks during a June 2021 interview with the Empire. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion:Where’s Don Young when America needs him?

Once upon a time, avoiding political controversy was completely out of character for Young.

Peter Zuyus
Voices of the Peninsula: Seniors appreciate vaccination efforts

To those who have worked to encourage vaccination we say: Be proud, you are, in fact, saving lives.

Jackson Blackwell (courtesy photo)
Voices of the Peninsula: Carbon dividends are the bipartisan climate solution

By levying a gradually increasing price on carbon, U.S. emissions will be slashed by 50% in 15 years.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy holds a press conference at the Capitol on Tuesday, April 9, 2019. (Juneau Empire file photo)
Dunleavy: Facts Matter

Political opportunists care more about spreading political untruths than accepting the facts.

Steve Hughes. (Photo provided)
Voices of the Peninsula: We are all victims of COVID-19

It is disturbing to hear, as a triage nurse, the many reasons cited for not getting a vaccine that are based on misinformation.

teaser
Opinion: LGBTQ+ Alaskans deserve respect and dignity

Like every state that lacks equality, we need federal protection.