Criminal Justice, Featured, Gold Dome, Politics

Colorado's death penalty an unjust joke

(Editor’s note: As the decades old Nathan Dunlap death penalty case is again in the news, Complete Colorado found and is re-publishing this predictive 1993 op-ed, by then Colorado State Senator Bill Owens, first published in the Rocky Mountain News, on the Chuck E. Cheese murders)

Chuck E. Cheese in Aurora was our children’s favorite place to go for an evening of fun and food. A tradition in our home is that whenever a family member has a birthday, that person gets to pick the restaurant for the celebration. For my recent birthday-and after some persistent lobbying by my three kids-I “chose” Chuck E. Cheese.

The night was bitterly cold. We were greeted at the pizzeria by a bright, bubbly young lady, whom I later tragically came to know as Slyvia Crowell. She joked about the weather, and I remarked how she had the toughest job that night given her assignment of standing near the door, which was letting in wintry blasts. She laughed and said she didn’t mind because she liked talking to people.

Later that night, after pizza, after the raucous (and loud) floor show, our 7-year-old son Mark, became fastidious. He started picking up the plastic balls that had escaped, or been thrown from, the play area. After seeing Mark pick up the balls and return them to the play area, another young Chuck E. Cheese employee, Ben Grant, walked over and gave a surprised Mark a handful of free ride tokens. Ben thanked Mark for picking up the balls and patted him on the head as only a 17-year-old with six brothers and sisters can.

Just a few weeks later both Sylvia and Ben were dead, innocent victims of a punk’s idiotic rage.

If any good can come from this horrible tragedy perhaps it is that we can start to learn from our mistakes. Perhaps we can start treating juvenile delinquents as something other than adorable youngsters who have spilled their milk: The 19-year-old man charged in the Chuck E. Cheese murders had been charged with five misdemeanors since his 18th birthday-yet hadn’t spent a night in jail.

Perhaps we can take real steps to reduce the amount of gore and carnage our youngsters are exposed to through the “entertainment” industry. Isn’t it interesting that some of those same enlightened pundits and policymakers who tell us  that a child’s home and school environment determine whether a child succeeds fail to see the impact that watching thousands of murders and deaths on television and at the movies has on those same children? Perhaps we can learn a lesson, too, from other cultures, cultures that deal with violent crime directly.

This fall I visited Xian, a city of 3 million in southern China. While there, my guide told me that recently he had seen a flatbed truck slowly moving through the crowded streets of Xian with two men tied to stakes in the back. A day later, he saw the same two men, slumped over, restrained by their ropes, executed by a firing squad.

The men had been convicted of a murder. Their three-day trial took place one month after the murders occurred, and the men were executed a week following, where their appeals were turned down. Total elapsed time from murder to execution was less than two months. The lesson the Chinese people have learned is that murder is a very serious crime and murderers are dealt with swiftly and surely.

I walked the streets and slums of Xian, Beijing, Guilin and Canton by myself, late at night, with no concern for my safety.  While I do not defend the policies of the communist rulers, I do believe there is a lesson that can be learned from even a country like China.

Compare the Chinese example above with the likely course of events in the Chuck E. Cheese murders. The murder trial for the December 1993 killings will probably not start for nine months to a year. In the case of a conviction, the inevitable appeals will consume years. In fact, the average length of time from the completion of a capital crimes trial until execution in the United States is an incredible 11 years. So much for swift and sure punishment.

The threat of receiving the death penalty in Colorado is a joke. No person has been executed in Colorado since 1967-though more than 5,000 citizens (one every two days) have been murdered in our state over the past 26 years. While we have had a tough death penalty law on the books all these years, the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and the Colorado Supreme Court in the 1980’s and 1990’s, kept it from being enforced. These judges invented new “rights” for convicted murderers even as they took away citizens’ most precious right-the right to life.

I believe that it is possible to make our criminal justice system more responsive to the citizen, and not just to the criminal. We can do it by pushing our courts to make public protection a priority; by pushing our legislature to toughen sentences and build the prisons necessary to keep these criminals off the streets; and by pushing Gov. Roy Romer, Denver Mayor Wellington Webb and others who appoint judges, to appoint tough judges who are concerned with our rights as they are with the rights of criminals.

If the tragic deaths of Slyvia Crowell, Ben Grant, Colleen O’Conner and Margaret Kohlberg help make this happen, then maybe, just maybe, these deaths will not have bene in vain.

Former Colorado Governor Bill Owens was a state senator when this piece was originally published in the Rocky Mountain News on December 24, 1993.

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