Jeni In The News

When It Comes to Water Rights, This Once-a-Decade List Details Who Will ‘Use It or Lose It”

Luke Runyon, June 22, 2020 | KUNC Colorado Public Radio

Use it or lose it.

That saying is at the heart of how access to water is managed in the western U.S. Laws that govern water in more arid states, like Colorado, incentivize users to always take their full share from rivers and streams, or risk the state rescinding it. The threat comes in the form of a once-a-decade document that lists those users on the brink of losing their access to one of the region’s most precious resources.

It’s called the Decennial Abandonment List — and being included on it strikes fear and paranoia into rural pockets of the state, where farmers and ranchers depend on water for their livelihoods. Farmers trade tales of neighbors who’ve been mistakenly listed, with a notice sent to a wrong address, and who eventually see their water rights effectively canceled. Abandonment horror stories are akin to urban — or in this case, rural — legend.

Western Colorado water lawyer Rob Pierce says there’s one thing his clients, mostly farmers and ranchers, are always asking him about.

“The whole concept of abandonment,” Pierce said. “It gets mentioned all the time.”

Pierce practices for the Grand Junction-based firm Dufford Waldeck, and he said interest in abandonment reaches its apex right before the state releases the list. Colorado’s initial abandonment list is scheduled for July 1, the first time it’s been updated since 2010. Preparations for this year’s list began in 2018.

Municipal water rights are subject to inclusion on the abandonment list, but show up in far fewer numbers than agricultural water rights.

By law, state regulators are required to compile the list every 10 years. It details all the water rights no longer being used to irrigate crops, flow through city plumbing systems or cool turbines in factories and power plants. If they’re determined to no longer be in use, they’re scrubbed from the record, and can’t be used again. Because the stakes are so high, Pierce said scuttlebutt about who’s on it and who’s not starts early.

“It does feel a little bit like the old West,” he said. “I mean, there aren’t many things these days where you can have a property right in something and lose it like this.”

The idea behind the abandonment list is rooted in Western water law. Ever since the 1800s, when the concept of prior appropriation became the dominant methodology to divvy up water in the region, Westerners have been able to petition for rights based on their ability to put it to “beneficial use.” Not using it? Then you can lose it.

But like many old adages in the West’s water lore, Pierce said, it’s more complicated than it sounds.

“I don’t want to call it the boogie man because that suggests that there’s not actually a threat,” Pierce said. “But it’s something that I think the threat looms larger maybe than it actually is in many people’s minds.”

“It’s not as though without you realizing it, your water right would just slip out of your hands.”

Water attorney Kara Godbehere, of Longmont, Colo.-based firm Lyons Gaddis, agrees.

“It’s not as easy as ‘use it or lose it’ makes it sound I think,” Godbehere said. “That terminology is maybe a little inflammatory or misleading because it’s not as though without you realizing it, your water right would just slip out of your hands.”

It’s actually pretty difficult to lose it, Godbehere said. First, a user has to stop diverting the water for a long time. She points out abandonment lists come out once in a decade, and it sometimes takes an even longer period of 15 to 20 years to establish non-use. Users aren’t likely to put their right in jeopardy unless there’s a strong pattern of non-use, she said. And, even more importantly, she said, you have to intend to abandon it. It’s not an accident.

“It’s not as though it just sort of disappears one day and somebody is left wondering, where did my water go?” Godbehere said.

Rights can either be fully or partially abandoned as well. If a farmer switches to a more water-efficient crop, like replacing a field of alfalfa hay with hemp for example, the water consumed over time could be less. And the water right used to irrigate that field could end up being partially, not completely, abandoned.

More than 2,700 individual water rights were initially listed as abandoned on the 2010 list. After going through a court process, where people who think they’ve been erroneously included have time to appeal, the list was whittled down to roughly 2,200 water rights that were officially declared abandoned, according to records from the Colorado Division of Water Resources. The vast majority of those rights were from farms and ranches, used to irrigate crops or pastureland. Agriculture uses about 80% of all available water in Colorado.

“The idea of abandonment is really to the general benefit of water users in the particular basin,” said Kevin Rein, the Colorado state engineer. He oversees the process of creating the list at the helm of the Division of Water Resources.

The abandonment list allows his department to clean up the books every now and then, and remove old rights from the record. Without abandonment, Rein said, a situation could arise where someone with old water rights, who hadn’t used them in a long time, all of a sudden starts using them again. That new use could upend how a whole water system functions, leaving some users short.

“So if you’re not using it, you should not be able to hold onto it, keep it for some other day if you don’t have a plan to use it,” Rein said. The beneficial use requirement also makes it difficult to speculate on water rights, and requires those who have access to water to use it, rather than sit on it and wait for it to accrue value.

Legal uncertainty over the Colorado River is affecting which water rights are being included, and left off the 2020 abandonment list.

This year’s list also reflects some ongoing uncertainty in the realm of Western water politics. Earlier this year Rein sent a message to his division engineers, the state officials who compile the abandonment lists in their regions, telling them not to abandon rights that pre-date the 1929 Boulder Canyon Project Act, the piece of legislation that authorized the construction of Hoover Dam on the Colorado River.

Colorado is still uncertain what role abandonment might play in the hypothetical legal battle that could result from a violation of the Colorado River compact, which spells out a certain amount of water the states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico are expected to send downriver to Arizona, Nevada, California and Mexico.

Those pre-1929 rights are called “present-perfected rights,” and likely aren’t subject to any sort of curtailment that would result from a compact call on the river. They’re some of the oldest, and most valuable, water rights in the entire Colorado River watershed.

But how those rights play into it is still unknown. Rein said after consulting with lawyers at the Colorado attorney general’s office, he instructed his division engineers not to include them. The same thing happened in 2010, so for more than 20 years, those pre-1929 rights haven’t been included on the list.

How do those present-perfected rights benefit Colorado’s standing in a protracted legal battle over the management of the Colorado River?

“That’s where I need to just honestly tell you, I don’t know,” Rein said. “And I’m not embarrassed to say I don’t know.”

Agriculture accounts for about 80% of Colorado’s water use, and water rights on farms and ranches make up the majority of those declared abandoned by the state.

But beyond arcane legal thought experiments on the Colorado River, the “use it or lose it” concept, and the threat of abandonment, also give individual water users some perverse incentives.

“The most valuable thing that people have on a farm or ranch, is the water right,” said Jeni Arndt, a Democratic state representative from Fort Collins.

In general, the more water you have rights to, the more money it’s worth. The actual value can vary depending on drought conditions, and whether nearby residential development or other new demands for water are coming online. So if the volume is tied to a dollar amount, and a user can be paid big sums of money to transfer their right to a new use, why would anyone ever want to conserve it?

Arndt introduced a bill this year that would have allowed farmers, ranchers and other major water users to use their water more efficiently, through a state-approved conservation program, and avoid having their water rights listed as abandoned for a period of time.

“But it’s to help farmers and ranchers realize the value of their water right, without necessarily having to sell,” she said.

Arndt initially put the limit at 20 years, then revised to five years, eventually pulling the bill altogether. Farm groups and others in the Colorado water community brought up concerns about it. She’s hoping to work on the idea this summer and bring it back during the 2021 legislative session.

“We need to design our laws and policies so that we can meet our water short future. And that’s a real deal,” Arndt said.

As Colorado and the West continue to dry out, she said something will have to give. And communities throughout the region might just have to challenge some of those foundational ideas in Western water law — like the abandonment list.

This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River, produced in partnership with KUNC in northern Colorado, with support from the Walton Family Foundation.

Larimer County lawmaker: ‘We shouldn’t be charged with deciding whether someone should die’

Jacy Marmaduke, March 1, 2020 | The Coloradoan

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

Colorado State Rep. Jeni Arndt talks with others before breaking off lunch on Thursday, May 2, 2019, at the Colorado State Capital in Denver, Colo. (Photo: Timothy Hurst/The Coloradoan)

“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 three are black men who were sentenced in the 18th Judicial District, which covers Aurora, Littleton, Castle Rock and a wide region southeast of Denver. 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.

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.

Other people convicted of similar crimes have avoided the death penalty, which demonstrates that it 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.”

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 instead of the death penalty for killing 12 people at an Aurora movie theater. George Brauchler, district attorney for the 18th Judicial District, sought the death penalty for Holmes, but state law requires unanimous jury approval for a death sentence. If a jury is not unanimous, the sentence is automatically life in prison in those cases.

Brauchler wrote an opinion piece for the Denver Post opposing the capital punishment repeal. He said the loss of the death penalty as a bargaining tool will mean lengthy, expensive trials and more pain for victims’ families. It will also mean creating a “one-size-fits-all” punishment for first-degree murder, he wrote.

“Colorado will have reduced the potential penalty for murderers of small children, mass murderers, and serial killers,” he wrote. “A terrorist who kills dozens will only face the same penalty as a gang member who murders another gang member. An imprisoned murderer who murders another inmate or a prison guard is assured of receiving no additional punishment. There will no longer be any disincentive for someone facing a murder charge to try to kill a key witness, the judge, or the prosecutor. Cop killers’ lives will never be in jeopardy — even if they kill more than one.”

The death penalty also came into play in the case of Christopher Watts, who was sentenced to life in prison without parole for killing his pregnant wife and young daughters in Frederick. Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke agreed not to seek the death penalty in the case in exchange for Watts pleading guilty.

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.

“It’s unfortunate that such an important tool in our arsenal to protect public safety could be stripped away in the name of political achievement,” Rourke said in a statement provided to the Coloradoan. “If this was the will of the people, then it’d be a different story — but it’s not. The voters of Colorado were denied an opportunity to have a say on whether to repeal the death penalty, and that’s just disappointing.”

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.

Eighth Judicial District Attorney Cliff Riedel testified against the death penalty repeal bill, but he “fully understands that it is the province of the legislature to put forth legislation even though it will negatively impact public safety,” Eighth Judicial District spokeswoman Jodi Lacey said.

7 cases in Larimer County where the death penalty had impact

At a 2018 panel discussion, Eighth Judicial District Attorney Cliff Riedel said seven criminal cases during his tenure in Larimer County came to the resolutions they did because the death penalty was on the books:

  • 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.

 

Water is Colorado’s most critical resource. So why isn’t it central to every local land-use decision?

A new bill in Colorado’s capitol aims to better align local land-use planning with water conservation efforts laid out in the Colorado Water Plan. But is it enough?

Moe Clark, February 11, 2020 – The Colorado Sun

DENVER, CO – JANUARY 8: The Second regular session of the 72nd Colorado General Assembly convenes at the Colorado State Capitol on January 8, 2020 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

In the early 1980s, the small city of Woodland Park started strategically planning how to protect its water supply for the future.

“Because we have all junior water rights and a limited water supply, we knew we must be very careful about how we grow,” said Sally Riley, planning director for Woodland Park, which is home to approximately 7,500 people in the mountains west of Colorado Springs. “We’ve pretty much mapped out exactly how our 6.5 square miles are going to grow.”

To ensure that they don’t develop beyond the limits of their water supply, Riley says the city has closely integrated its land-use decisions with local water conservation and efficiency goals that align with the Colorado Water Plan.

A new bill at the Colorado Capitol hopes to encourage more local governments to do the same. House Bill 1095 says that if a community identifies it will need more water to grow, it should also include conservation measures for its existing supply.

“In a state that hates mandates, this is a gentle nudge for communities to make sure they are planning for the future when it comes to water,” said state Rep. Jeni Arndt, a Fort Collins Democrat who is bringing the bill.

The Colorado Water Plan five years ago set the goal that by 2025, 75% of Coloradans will live in communities that have incorporated water-saving actions into land-use planning.

Currently, 24 communities have completed the Sonoran Institute’s Growing Water Smart Training, a leading program that helps communities integrate land use planning and water conservation efforts, said Sara Leonard, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

Leonard estimates that 15 to 20 more communities have participated in similar workshops, but many more would need to take part in order to meet the state’s goal.

“So, a lot of progress is being made on this goal,” Leonard said.

House Bill 1095 would also make permanent a temporary, partially grant-funded position in the Department of Local Affairs that assists local governments in integrating water conservation in their land use planning — though there is currently no money allocated in the bill to support the position.

“Historically, water resource planning and land-use planning have been implemented on parallel tracks. By separating these planning areas into different silos, the impacts from each on the other are not fully addressed,” Leonard said.

“With a growing population in Colorado, it is imperative to synchronize land and water planning to help planners to better understand the impact of new growth and redevelopment on future water demand in our urban areas.”

Today, Woodland Park has added dozens of regulations and ordinances into its zoning and building codes that focus on water conservation. It also limits the number of houses that can be built each year by setting a cap for how many new taps can be installed.

“In order for the state to manage growth and be smart about growth, it needs to be dependent upon our water resources and the protection of the environment. So to me, this is a no brainer,” Riley said.

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What the bill would do –– and what it wouldn’t

One of a dozen water bills introduced this session, ranging from water well inspections to fee exemptions, House Bill 1095 requires that if a local government’s comprehensive plan includes a water supply element, it must also include conservation policies.

A comprehensive plan is an advisory document that outlines long-term goals for community development, and often includes guidelines for things like transportation, utilities, land use, environmental protection, recreation and housing.

But comprehensive plans are not regulatory documents.

These conservation policies may include “goals specified in the state water plan, and may also include policies to implement water conservation and other state water plan goals as a condition of development approval, including subdivisions, planned unit developments, special use permits, and zoning changes,” the bill says.

Though state statute requires every municipality or county in Colorado to have a comprehensive plan, it doesn’t require them to include water element. But if it does, water conservation measures must be added the first time the plan is amended after the bill takes effect, but no later than July 1, 2025.

Gretel Follingstad, a Colorado-based land use planner and consultant who specializes in water resource management, said the language in the bill makes the recommendations “optional” and minimizes the bill’s potential impact.

“If you really want a strong policy around water, and you really want the state water plan goals to come to fruition, you need a will, not a may,” she said. “Because otherwise communities won’t do it if they don’t have the funding for it or they don’t have the political will, or if they don’t feel like they have a problem.”

But just by adding water into the local comprehensive plans, it’s changing the conversation, she said.

“We can’t change the fact that Colorado uses water districts as water suppliers and that those water districts are separate entities from their community,” Follingstad said. “All we can do is to teach the community planners that water is not infinite.”

Tackling Colorado’s water woes at the local level

As more controversial storage projects pop up across the state, the bill reminds local governments –– especially communities that hold junior water rights –– to not just find ways to increase their storage capacity, but to also find innovative ways to use existing supplies more efficiently.

Colorado’s population is predicted to reach 8.7 million people by 2050 –– a more than 50% increase from 2015. That will further strain the state’s already limited water resources, which are increasingly challenged by the long-term drying out of the West, referred to as aridification.

In July, the Colorado Water Conservation Board released a technical analysis and update to the state’s supply and demand projections. The update examined water supply under five scenarios, with the two biggest drivers for water supply gaps being population growth and a warming climate.

The scenarios project that municipal and industrial water users may see water supply gaps ranging from 250,000 to 750,000 acre-feet by 2050. Approximately one acre-foot can support the needs of two families of four to five people a year, according to the Colorado Water Center at Colorado State University.

“It’s unlikely that conservation efforts can completely close the gap,” Arndt said. “But it can certainly help.”

Colorado Counties Inc., which lobbies on behalf of the state’ county governments, testified at the bill’s Feb. 3 hearing before the the House Rural Affairs and Agriculture Committee that its members worry the measure could open the door to formal regulations.

“We wanted to make sure the bill remains permissive, which it does,” said Daphne Gervais, a CCI lobbyist. “This kind of legislation really just makes us nervous, because we don’t know if it’s the first step that is leading to others.”

Gervais also added that counties and local governments already have the authority to include water planning in their land-use planning process. A 1991 law requires water utilities with a demand of greater than 2,000 acre-feet annually to have a water conservation plan.

“I’m glad we have that, but that’s not a substitute for a five- or 10-year visionary master plan,” Arndt said.

For Follingstad, comprehensive plans are crucial tools for communities envisioning the future. And that they can provide a policy framework for zoning and development regulations.

“If those ideas and that process is bringing awareness to the fact that water is scarce and will become more scarce,” Follingstad said, “it’s going to change how people use water.”

Avoiding the worst case scenario

Even though the bill doesn’t give local governments more authority, advocates hope it helps bring water conservation into the land-use conversation at the beginning of the community planning process, not the end.

“So, basically, utilities have been expected to come up with a supply to meet the demands,” Follingstad said.

“But when you insert population growth that’s beyond the capacities of many watersheds and water systems, and you insert climate change, which is making water, especially in the West, especially in Colorado because of the Colorado River compact, much more scarce — that’s not a sustainable system.”

Follingstad helped create the Growing Water Smart handbook — a guidebook that helps local governments integrate water conservation measures into their land use planning.

Since 2017, Colorado’s Water Conservation Board has worked with the Sonoran Institute and Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy to host Growing Water Smart workshops in communities across Colorado. The next workshop is May 6-8 in Breckenridge.

The training focuses on reducing the demand for water by utilizing three key strategies: decreasing water use by modifying consumption behaviors; using technology and optimizing building or site designs to use less water; and increasing water recycling.

She says Colorado lags behind other states in terms of integrating water conservation into land use plans. And that lack of governmental guidance has created a false sense of security for some communities.

“There is going to be a time in the future where just because you have the water rights doesn’t mean you know that you will get the water,” Follingstad said.

“The states are going to have to go back to the drawing board at some point, to put it in a nice way, because eventually, we’ll have to allocate water in a more equitable and accountable way.”

Follingstad says she understands why counties wouldn’t be enthusiastic about the bill.

“They don’t want to lose any freedoms, and they also probably don’t want the headache of collaborating with municipalities. But if they did, even if it wasn’t regional plans but it was county plans, that would make them better and more resilient,” she said.

Colorado, as a headwater state and member of the Colorado River Compact — the legal framework that allocates water from the Colorado River Basin to seven states and Mexico — should set an example of how to be good stewards of our water supplies, Follingstad said.

“Everybody has to do something in order to create sustainability,” she said. “And this is a way of making sure that towns and communities across Colorado, No. 1, understand that there is a state water plan and that the goals in that plan are real and serious and have consequences. And two, that there is a way at the local level that they can make a difference.”

If signed into law, the bill would take effect on Aug. 5.


Colorado Lawmakers Move Again To Abolish The Death Penalty (Just Like In 1897)

Andrew Kenney, January 13, 2020 – Colorado Public Radio

DENVER, COLORADO – DECEMBER 30: The 2020 legislative session will start soon at the Colorado State Capitol Building on December 30, 2019 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Colorado legislators will soon introduce a bill to abolish the state’s death penalty for future cases, according to Democratic Sen. Julie Gonzales. She sponsored a previous attempt to undo capital punishment in the last session.

“After the 2019 legislative session ended, I spent the summer and fall listening to the family members of murder victims, listening to my colleagues’ concerns, and listening to people who were exonerated after being falsely accused and sentenced to death. Their stories underscored and renewed my commitment to abolishing the death penalty,” Gonzales said in a text message to CPR News.

Reformers have tried for years to ban executions in Colorado. An effort in 2009 failed by a single last-minute Senate vote. Last year, Democrats gave up on repeal as tensions rose within the party.

The new effort may enjoy stronger support: Sens. Jack Tate and Kevin Priola, both Republicans, will back the bill. That could help it pass despite a divide among Democrats in the Senate.

Tate said the death penalty is ineffective and expensive, with “the risk of executing an innocent person.” Priola, a Catholic, believes in “protecting life from conception to natural death.”

Their votes could counterbalance the vote of Sen. Rhonda Fields, a Democrat who wants Colorado to keep the penalty. Her son Javad Marshall-Fields and his fiancee Vivian Wolfe were murdered by two men who are on death row today.

“It’s a constant pain I live with every day. It’s something that you just you don’t get over — you just live through,” Fields told CPR last March.

Gov. Jared Polis would support a repeal bill, he said last year, and if one passed, he would also consider sparing the lives of the three men already on death row. Reps. Jeni Arndt and Adrienne Benavidez will co-sponsor the 2020 bill, along with Tate.

An “international trend”

Capital punishment is allowed in 29 states and by the federal government, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, but the movement against has gained momentum.

“What’s going on in Colorado is part of a national and really international trend,” said Michael Radelet, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and the author of “The History of the Death Penalty in Colorado.”

New Hampshire is the most recent state to end capital punishment, despite the governor’s attempted veto. Before that, New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut and Maryland abolished it between 2009 and 2013.

Public opinion has shifted nationally, with support for the death penalty falling from 80 percent in 1995 to 56 percent in 2019, according to Gallup. Moreover, most people now prefer life without parole over death as the punishment for the most severe crimes. And abolition movements have also spread around the world.

“We really are alone on our use of the death penalty (among Western democracies),” Radelet said.

An issue that divides

Colorado has only executed one person in the last 50 years: Gary Lee Davis, in 1997. Former Gov. John Hickenlooper effectively froze executions in Colorado in 2013, a move that Polis is unlikely to reverse.

Today, three men wait on death row. Besides’ the men convicted of killing Fields’ son and his fiancee, the third is Nathan Dunlap, who was sentenced to death for killing four people at a pizza restaurant in 1993.

The issue is one that divides the families of murder victims. Gail Rice, 72, is the sister of the late Bruce VanderJagt, a Denver police officer who was murdered by a man with an automatic rifle in 1997.

The killer died by suicide at the scene, but an accomplice faced life in prison. Going through the lengthy trial turned Rice into an anti-death penalty activist, especially after she learned that her brother had opposed capital punishment.

“That’s part and parcel of my Christian faith. If I throw that out and see this as a subhuman person of no worth, then I’ve got to throw out a lot of my Christian faith,” she said. “The death penalty is especially harshly carried out against the poor and marginalized. I think it makes a mockery of what the Bible says is God’s very preferential caring for the poor and the powerless.”

Executions are allowed in Colorado by lethal injection. In recent years, pharmaceutical companies have limited the supply of execution drugs, so some states have introduced new methods.

Oklahoma, Mississippi and Alabama now allow firing squads, electrocution, and nitrogen hypoxia, according to the NCSL. Supporters of capital punishment also argue that it discourages would-be killers, an idea contested by some researchers.

The U.S. Supreme Court halted the death penalty nationwide in 1972, finding that states carried it out unfairly. But in 1974, Colorado voters overwhelmingly approved a measure to reinstate the state’s death penalty. In 1978, the Colorado Supreme Court temporarily froze the practice. In 1979, the legislature amended the law to begin executions once more.

Colorado previously abolished the death penalty in 1897, but reinstated it in 1901 in an attempt to discourage horrific lynchings, Radelet said.

“The legislature always has had mixed feelings about it,” he added.