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April 23 2009 | UNITED STATES

Colorado/USA

Death penalty repeal passes House. Senate next week will take up the issue

 
printable version

The Denver Post

Death-penalty repeal passes House by single vote

By John Ingold

The state House today approved a bill to eliminate the death penalty in Colorado by a single vote.

The House voted 33-32 to send the bill, HB 1274, to the state Senate, with one Republican voting in favor of the bill and six Democrats voting against it. The bill would use the projected cost saving from ending the death penalty to fund a cold-case unit at the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.

"We ought to fund the unit we created two years ago to try to solve some of those unsolved crimes," said House Majority Leader Paul Weissmann, a Louisville Democrat who is the bill's sponsor.

Weissmann said more than 1,000 homicides have gone unsolved in Colorado over the last 40 years, during which Colorado has executed only one convict. He said more than $800,000 in saved money would be left over every year after the state funds the cold-case unit.

Opponents said the bill takes away a necessary tool for law-enforcement officers and prosecutors.

The vote in the House today, dramatically, came down to a single vote. With the count deadlocked at 32-32, state Rep. Edward Vigil, D-Fort Garland, paused for nearly a minute before casting the deciding vote in favor of the bill.

Rep. Don Marostica of Loveland was the lone Republican to vote for the bill. Democrats Edward Casso of Thornton, Kathleen Curry of Gunnison, Jerry Frangas of Denver, Sara Gagliardi of Arvada, Karen Middleton of Aurora, and John Soper of Thornton voted against it.

Afterward, Vigil said he struggled with the issue, trying to balance the moral good of ending the death penalty with the practical good of prosecutors having a tool to use as leverage against suspects.

"Hopefully, this will make us a better society in Colorado by not having a death penalty," Vigil said, "though I have my reservations."

 

Denver Post Columnist

Johnson: Praise for a torn man voting

By Bill Johnson

What was going through his mind, I asked Edward Vigil. I mean really, I added for emphasis - as he sat there Tuesday, every eye in the Colorado House trained on him.

The vote on whether the state should abandon the death penalty was deadlocked, 32-32, when his name was called.

Vigil rocked gently on both legs, staring at his shoes, as he recalled the moment.

Some people put the time it took for him to cast his vote at five minutes. One person swore it was an hour. I thought it would take the freshman Democratic legislator from Fort Garland that long to answer my first question.

"It really wasn't that courageous a vote," he finally said, looking up.  "I was torn between this very useful tool law enforcement needs and the morality of the state taking lives."

Vigil, you must understand, is a sixth-generation native of the San Luis Valley, which almost by definition means he is a good Catholic boy whipsawed, like all good Catholic boys, by the demands of the secular community and the innate morality of our faith.

Yes, he had opposed House Bill 1274 almost from the moment House Majority Leader Paul Weissmann, D-Louisville, floated it yet again.

This is Weissmann's fourth attempt at getting the death penalty abolished, his belief being that the millions spent on it would be better used finding murderers.

He had for weeks now been whispering this into Vigil's ear. He knew the man's background, how he had long been a Costilla County commissioner and, more important, how he is a certified peace officer and had served eight years as an investigator in the 12th Judicial District attorney's office.

All of that background, Vigil said, again looking at his shoes, swarmed him as he decided his vote.

District attorneys from across Colorado had been on his phone and in his face in the days leading up to the vote, he said.

Could he turn on them now?

At the same time, others were in his ear. Some insisted that Sister Helen Prejean of "Dead Man Walking" fame called. He will acknowledge only that his bishop in the San Luis Valley had been on the phone.

"He did not tell me how to vote," Vigil said of his bishop, "but reminded me of the morality of killing, how there is a time to take lives - in our own defense, in defense of our family and our country.

"We are supposed to be a people of faith who preserve life," Vigil said, still rocking. "He told me to remember the tenets of the Church."

The seconds ticked.

What of the district attorneys? He knows the threat of the death penalty solved cases that otherwise wouldn't be.

Finally, it came down to Barack Obama. If the president, he said, could outlaw torture in the middle of a terror war, how could he possibly not make the toughest decision of his fledgling political career?

"It was a big factor, one that in the end made me decide to support this bill," he said.

"I do see both ends of this question," Vigil said, once again looking me in the eye. "It wasn't my vote, the way people are saying. Thirty-two others voted exactly the same way. But, hopefully in the end, it was the right thing to do."

The state Senate next week will take up the issue.

Whatever the outcome in the Senate, we should all hope every elected official in that body takes the question into their very souls the way Edward Vigil on Tuesday did.

Bill Johnson writes Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays

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