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Death penalty repeal effort up for first hearing Tuesday

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DENVER — The battle over Colorado’s death penalty will begin in earnest Tuesday, when a measure to repeal capital punishment in the state will get its first hearing.

The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hear House Bill 1264 at 1:30 Tuesday.

FOX31 Denver was first to report that Democrats were introducing the bill last Friday, just as the most controversial gun control measures received their final votes and headed to Gov. John Hickenlooper’s desk.

Reps. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, and Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, are the prime sponsors of the bill.

On Monday, Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, announced that she’ll be offering a competing measure to refer the decision on abolishing the death penalty to Colorado voters, the Denver Post was first to report.

Fields supports the death penalty, having fought for that sentence for two men, Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray, both convicted in the 2005 murder of her son, Javad Marshall Fields, and his girlfriend, Vivian Wolfe.

The repeal proposed by Levy and Melton would not affect the sentences of those two men or Nathan Dunlap, the Chuck E. Cheese killer who could be executed later this year.

It would only apply to crimes committed after the law takes effect in July 2013; as such, it would also allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty in the case of suspected Aurora theater shooter James Holmes, who is awaiting trial in Arapahoe County.

Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler, whose office is prosecuting Holmes, plans to testify against repealing the death penalty.

On the other side, Robert Dewey, who was freed last year after being exonerated for a murder and serving 18 years in prison, will testify Tuesday in support of repeal.

Priola among Republicans backing repeal

Some Republicans are likely to support the legislation, mostly for religious reasons, FOX31 Denver has confirmed.

“For me, it’s religious conviction. I’m a practicing Catholic and I understand what the Church teaches on the issue,” said Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson. “Secondly, if you look at statistics, it’s arbitrary and capricious and it’s time we look at repealing it.

“It costs about a million dollars a year and it tends to be used mostly on the minority population.”

According to Priola, a few other Republicans are likely to support the bill on religious grounds.

“Catholics are very pro-life and that means from conception until death,” he said.

Priola also said cases like that of Troy Davis, who was executed in 2011 despite lingering questions about his murder conviction and, ultimately, his guilt, make him worry about the execution of the innocent.

“There are people now who, we find out from DNA, go to prison and sit on death row and had no part in those crimes,” Priola said. “That’s another part that gives me pause.”