Jeni Arndt’s bill repeals death penalty, which hasn’t been used in Larimer in decades

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Colorado Rep. Jeni Arndt has opposed the death penalty since she was old enough to understand it.

“I was maybe 4 or 5 when I asked my mom, ‘Why does the government kill people?’” said Arndt, a Democrat whose Colorado House of Representatives district encompasses most of Fort Collins.

Decades later, Arndt’s legislation to repeal the death penalty in Colorado passed out of the House on a 38-27 vote this week. The bill is awaiting Gov. Jared Polis’ signature.

Arndt co-sponsored the legislation with Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, D-Commerce City; Sen. Jack Tate, R-Centennial; and Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver. State lawmakers have tried and failed to repeal the death penalty at least six times since 2002.

The bill’s success comes a year after the failure of another repeal effort, which Arndt also co-sponsored. Arndt said the bill found more support this year because it had bipartisan sponsorship. She asked Tate, who is Catholic, to sponsor the bill in the Senate.

“When Jack got on, it really made the difference,” Arndt said. “It was very meaningful to have him step up and follow his faith and sign on as a prime sponsor.”

The House and Senate votes didn’t perfectly follow party lines, although most Democrats supported the repeal and most Republicans opposed it.

Opponents of the death penalty say it’s immoral, expensive, discriminatory and overly expensive. Advocates say it should be preserved as a consequence for the most heinous of crimes. Some advocates also argue the death penalty deters crime, although most research hasn’t supported that.

No one has been executed in the state since 1997, when convicted murderer and rapist Gary Lee Davis was killed by lethal injection. Three people are on death row in Colorado; all are black men who were sentenced in the 18th Judicial District. One of the men was sentenced to death for a 1993 shooting that left three dead at an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese. The other two men were sentenced to death for the 2005 murders of an engaged couple in Aurora. The victims, Javad Marshall-Fields and his fiancee, Vivian Wolfe, were both Colorado State University graduates.

But some of Colorado’s most high-profile murders in recent years haven’t resulted in the death penalty. James Holmes was sentenced to life in prison without parole for killing 12 people at an Aurora movie theater, and Christopher Watts received the same sentence for killing his wife and young daughters in Frederick.

But the death penalty did come into play in the Watts case. Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke agreed not to seek the death penalty in the case in exchange for Watts pleading guilty to nine counts.

Rourke said he didn’t seek the death penalty mainly because of the “strong wishes” of victim Shanann Watts’ family, but it also helped him reach a plea agreement in the case. 

Still, the disparity demonstrates that the death penalty is “unevenly and arbitrarily applied,” Arndt said.

“Human beings are flawed,” she said. “We shouldn’t be charged with deciding whether someone should die. There’s too much room for mistakes.”

Attorney General Phil Weiser said he’ll recommend commuting the sentences of the three men on death row if Polis signs the repeal bill as expected.

Courts in Larimer County have not sentenced anyone to the death penalty in at least 40 years.

It was considered an option during the Colorado prosecution of serial killer Marion Pruett, who killed two 7-Eleven clerks in Fort Collins and Loveland during a 1981 rampage across three states. Pruett was sentenced to life without parole for the Larimer County murders, but he was later sentenced to death and executed for a murder he committed in Arkansas.

7 cases in Larimer County where the death penalty had impact

At a 2018 panel discussion, Eighth Judicial District Attorney Cliff Riedel said he’s seen the death penalty influence the resolutions of seven criminal cases during his tenure in Larimer County.

  • Jeffrey Etheridge: He was sentenced to life in prison for sexually assaulting and killing Heather “Helena” Hoffmann in 2017 in City Park. 
  • Travis Forbes: He was sentenced to life in prison for the 2011 murder of Kenia Monge in Denver, and he also brutally attacked and sexually assaulted Fort Collins woman Lydia Tillman and received an additional sentence in Larimer County.
  • Joseph Curl: He was sentenced to life in prison for killing and strangling Linnea Dick, a Front Range Community College student, in 2008, and then setting the home on fire.
  • Jason Clausen: He was sentenced to life in prison for the 2003 murder of Lacy Jo Miller, 22, after he impersonated a police officer to pull her over, abducted her and killed her.
  • Rick Watson: Watson, a carnival worker, was sentenced in 2002 after he beat an elderly man to death who had provided him a place to stay in Fort Collins at an apartment complex in Fort Collins.
  • Troy Graves: The serial rapist was sentenced to life in prison after the murder of a woman in Philadelphia and sexual assaults on several woman in Philadelphia and Fort Collins. 
  • Marion Pruitt: Pruitt was sentenced in the 1980s to multiple life sentences for murdering a clerk at 7-Eleven in Fort Collins and then murdering a clerk at a 7-Eleven in Loveland. He also murdered other individuals in different states.

Jacy Marmaduke covers government accountability for the Coloradoan. Follow her on Twitter @jacymarmaduke. Support stories like this one by purchasing a digital subscription to the Coloradoan.​​​​​​

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