Russell Hebets July 30, 2015

Last week, the jury in the Aurora theater shooting trial found James Holmes guilty on all 165 charges against him and the spotlight will continue to shine on this trial as the court shifts into the sentencing stage – deciding whether or not Holmes should receive the death penalty for his crimes. With this case and with the Massachusetts jury sentencing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death for his role in the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, capital punishment has been a focus of discussion across the country. 

Remember the Fero’s Bar murders? 

But Holmes and Tsnarnaev are not the only cases you should be paying attention to. The trial for Dexter Lewis just started on Monday, July 20th. Lewis and two other individuals are accused of robbing Fero’s Bar and Grill for $170, stabbing to death the five people who were in the bar at the time, and setting the bar on fire in an attempt to cover up the evidence. A police informant who was allegedly at the bar at the time of the murders turned on the three men, and no charges have been filed against the informant. Lewis is facing charges of first degree murder, robbery, and arson. The two other individuals involved have made plea agreements and are expected to testify against Lewis. If convicted, Lewis will face the death penalty. This case is the first time a death penalty case has been tried in Denver County since 2001. Considering the terrible tragedy of the murders along with the potential for a death penalty sentence, this case is not receiving nearly enough attention in the media. 

What you need to know about the death penalty 

With these three cases in mind, let’s talk about the death penalty in the state of Colorado. In the United States, the death penalty is legal in 31 of the 50, with 19 states having the practice abolished. However, four states have what is called a “governor moratorium” in place, meaning the governor of the state has put all executions on hold during his or her time in office. When Governor Hickenlooper indefinitely postponed the execution of Nathan Dunlap in 2013, Colorado joined Washington, Oregon, and Pennsylvania as one of those states with a governor moratorium. In Colorado, only three crimes are eligible for the death penalty: first degree murder (with at least one of the seventeen aggravating factors), first degree kidnapping, and treason. 

Death Row in Colorado

As a result of the United States Supreme Court case Furman vs. Georgia in 1972, the death penalty as it existed in state statutes at the time was declared unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. This prompted many states to revise their statutes to make the administration and application of the death penalty more uniform across the board. Before 1972, Colorado executed 101 inmates. Colorado reinstated the death penalty in 1975, but since then has only executed one inmate - Gary Lee Davis, in 1997. Currently, Colorado has three inmates on death row. Two of the three are Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray, who were sentenced in 2005 for the murder of two people. The third is Nathan Dunlap, who was convicted of murdering four people in a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in 1993 and whose execution is on indefinite hold. 

Cost of the death penalty 

Death penalty cases are much more expensive to litigate than life without parole cases. The length of a case dramatically increases its cost to taxpayers. A study done by the University of Denver Criminal Law Review found that life without parole cases take an average of 526 days to complete, while death penalty cases take almost 1,900 days – four years longer than the average life without parole case. Keep in mind – in Holmes’ case, the defense offered a guilty plea in exchange for a life without parole sentence. The Arapahoe County District Attorney’s office rejected this offer to avoid trial in their pursuit of the death penalty against Holmes. 

Don’t forget about Lewis 

Regardless of your opinion on the death penalty, it is a practice that is legal in Colorado and is a process that not just one, but two individuals are actively being put through. While we wait and see what Holmes’ sentence will be, don’t forget about Dexter Lewis and penalty he faces if convicted.