Criminal Justice, Featured

Shepherd: Where my support of the death penalty is unwavering

As an issue for the Colorado electorate, the death penalty has reinserted itself strongly into the public debate, thanks in part to the reporting of this website, and your author.

Like many Coloradans, I struggle with this issue. I’ve struggled with it for more than two decades. I think the honest, heartfelt reasons that both sides present are worthy in their own ways. In particular, I always find myself persuaded, but never completely, by my libertarian friends who argue that government can’t seem to do much right anyway, so why do you expect them to act with such extraordinary competence when it comes to ending a man’s or woman’s life in the name of justice?

Despite my many inner struggles over the death penalty and its implications on our society, there is one instance in which I have no qualms over using the death penalty. In fact, you could say in this particular instance, I’m rather adamant that the death penalty be applied.

When a person has been convicted of killing someone who is known to be willing to provide testimony to police or attorneys, or when the person has been convicted of killing a judge or prosecuting attorney, the death penalty is an appropriate sentencing option for jurors.

icon_op_edKilling a listed witness or prosecuting attorney is a crime that does not happen in a vaccuum. Those kinds of murders not only attempt to skew a particular trial, but they also have the potential to cast a veil of silence over the entire judicial system. Those kinds of murders can cast a chill over the vigor of the justice system that most of us take for granted on a daily basis.

The scenario I’m describing is not hypothetical to Colorado’s current death penalty dilemma.  Two of the three persons on Colorado’s death row – Robert Ray and Sir Mario Owens – are on death row for the 2005 killing of Javaad Marshall Fields* and Vivan Wolfe, Fields’ fiancé. Fields was planning to testify against Ray and Owens in a separate murder case when he was gunned down mafia-style in his car.

In December 2006, a Denver woman named Kalonnian Clark was brutally gunned down on the steps leading to her door after a home invasion. Clark had plans to testify in a murder trial against known gangster Brian Hicks.  Hicks has since been convicted of ordering the hit from behind bars.

The two witness killings, taken together, began to cast a pall over the ability of law enforcement all across the greater Denver metro area to gain the cooperation with witnesses on criminal cases of a variety of levels.  Some believe the witness killing of Clark severely restricted the Denver Police as they investigated the January 1, 2007, murder of Broncos player Darrent Williams.

In 2008, an Adams County prosecutor, Sean May, was murdered in his Denver home. The suspected motive has always been assumed to be retribution for some successful case prosecution that May was a part of. No suspect has ever been arrested.

Finally, not so distant in the rear view mirror, is the slaying of Tom Clements, who at the time of his murder was the Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections. The only suspect in the murder, Evan Ebel, was later killed in a shootout and high speed chase in Texas.

In my opinion, all of these cases merit the death penalty. While opponents of the death penalty often cite studies showing that the death penalty is not a deterrent, that doesn’t mean it conclusively will never act as a deterrent.  Perhaps by narrowing the scope of applicability, the death penalty could have more of a deterrence factor.

I freely confess my theory is not without problems.  How do you deal with the murders of people who might ultimately testify, but are murdered in the very same crime, at the same moment?  Is any murder of two or more people an ipso facto witness killing of sorts?

Also, by preserving the death penalty for these kinds of “justice system” related crimes, I am by no means trying to ensconce our police, judges, district attorneys, and potential witnesses in a bubble which makes any of them above the law. But by preserving the death penalty for these kinds of crimes, society sends a strong message that rightly ought to strengthen the judicial system in its routine work on non-death penalty cases.  I am not trying to elevate one life over another; the purpose of reserving the death penalty for at least these kinds of cases is to preserve the integrity of the judicial system as much as possible by attempting to insure the safety of those who choose to participate.

When Robert Ray was convicted of killing Javaad Marshall Fields, The Denver Post quoted then-DA Carol Chambers as saying, “Killing a witness undermines the very foundation of the criminal-justice system.”  Who can disagree with that?

If Evan Ebel had been caught alive, he should have faced a death penalty trial for killing Clements. If the killer of Sean May is ever caught, he also should face the possibility of death. And as for Robert Ray and Sir Mario Owens, I have no doubt: they should be put to death for their crimes.

*Javaad Marshal Fields was the son of State Representative Rhonda Fields, although Ms. Fields was not an elected official at the time of the murder.  In part, it was her active participation with the 18th Judicial District’s prosecution of the crime that brought her to the attention of politicians in the Aurora area.

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