Colorado Rights Blog

ACLU of Colorado By: ACLU of Colorado 10.20.2014

Durango Herald Op-Ed: Practice is ineffective, costly, barbaric and mistake-ridden

This op-ed, written by our Executive Director, appeared in Saturday’s Durango Herald:

The death penalty is a broken, costly and barbaric practice that does nothing to deter crime or enhance justice. All too often, it brings about the ultimate injustice: government execution of an innocent person.

Application of the death penalty is highly arbitrary and often biased, depending upon location, money, race, mental illness, the personal judgment of a district attorney and quality of legal representation. As botched executions leave prisoners twitching for hours on their death beds, we should decide to join the rest of the civilized world and end the practice of state-sponsored executions in Colorado and the United States.

Many people believe that death penalty mistakes are extremely rare, including Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who made the absurd claim in 2006 that felony convictions (including death penalty cases) have an error rate of only 0.027 percent. In reality, 144 prisoners on death row have been positively exonerated during the modern death penalty era in the United States, amounting to 1.6 percent of death sentences. The latest example was just last week, with the release of Manuel Velez in Huntsville, Texas, after nine years of incarceration and four years on death row for a crime that happened while he was a thousand miles away, based on a statement he signed that he was unable to read. A study published in April in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that at least 4.1 percent of prisoners sentenced to death are innocent of their alleged crime – an error rate 150 times what was claimed by Scalia.

Almost certainly, more innocent prisoners are executed or die on death row than are ever released.

Even when a prisoner on death row did commit the crime, there are often underlying issues of untreated mental illness, mental disability or discriminatory application of the death penalty. Even in cases that seem the most justified, pursuing the death penalty perpetuates a system that can and does make irreparable mistakes.

Many people assume that the death penalty at least saves money on incarceration, but exactly the reverse is true. Death penalty cases are extremely expensive, and along with the cost of maintaining death rows and the apparatus and preparation for executions, death penalty sentences cost the state far more than the total cost of lifetime imprisonment without parole. The money saved by ending the death penalty could be used to solve crimes, enhance public safety or treat mental illness.

There is absolutely no evidence that the death penalty deters murder or any other crime; in fact, murder rates are higher on average in states with the death penalty than those without it. A large majority of nations in the world have abolished the death penalty, and those that use it are generally nations with the worst abuses of human rights, such as Iran, Syria, China and North Korea. Is that the company we wish to keep?

The option of the death penalty creates agonizing moral dilemmas for juries and judges, for those who must carry it out and for all whose lives are touched by it. Victims’ families often divide over the issue, while other victims’ families wonder why their loss didn’t qualify as the “worst of the worst.” A quicker sentence of life without parole is much easier on most families than long, public death penalty trials that can turn killers into notorious celebrities.

The very existence of the death penalty is cruel and unusual, and it is long past time to end its use.



  • Cedric Watkins is a father, uncle, entrepreneur-in-training, and a vital community pillar for many others. While behind bars, he has tirelessly devoted himself to serving his peers and his community. He developed gang disaffiliation programs for other incarcerated individuals and is currently involved with Defy Ventures. He sends letters and calls his daughter as much as he can.

    Cedric is currently in prison at Sterling Correctional Facility. He was convicted of aggravated robbery, burglary, kidnapping, theft and sentenced to 80 years; no one was seriously injured or killed. For comparison, a person convicted of second-degree murder in Colorado faces a maximum sentence of 48 years. Cedric has already served 20 years and has fully rehabilitated during that time.

    It’s time to bring Cedric home: Redemption is real. Clemency is compassion.

  • On November 21, 2016, 13 Aurora police officers responded to a simple noise complaint at Alberto Torres’s home. As happens all too often, Aurora police officers escalated this minor issue into a brutal affair. They beat Mr. Torres solely because he delayed exiting his garage to ask his wife to interpret for him. With that beating, the lives of Mr. Torres and every member of his family were changed and he has yet to recover. ACLU of Colorado fought to obtain justice for Mr. Torres, and Aurora has now paid him $285,000. But money is not justice, and the brutality of the Aurora Police Department against people of color has continued unabated.

    It doesn’t have to be this way.

    Imagine, if instead of 13 officers being dispatched to Mr. Torres’s home for a noise complaint, the City of Aurora sent a civilian-led response team to check on his welfare and ask that he and his friends lower their sound, resulting in a non-violent solution to a minor issue?

    ACLU Settles Case With Aurora After Police Brutalize and Unlawfully Arrest Alberto Torres

  • Hope is a discipline. It’s a commitment that together, we can create a more perfect union. We won’t rest until we fulfill the promise of equal rights for ALL people in the United States.

    Join us in our fight to fulfill this promise and move forward with hope by donating to the ACLU of Colorado. Your donation supports the ACLU’s strengths that make our work effective and collaborative.

    Donate now at

  • Anthony Martinez is 84-years-old and suffering from renal failure, as well as other serious medical conditions including dementia. He is currently incarcerated in the Sterling Correctional Facility, site of one of Colorado’s largest COVID-19 outbreaks with almost 600 active COVID-19 cases. He and his family are understandably terrified that he will catch the virus and die.

    In the midst of this public health crisis, incarcerated people as vulnerable as Anthony, could and should be immediately released to safely live out their remaining years with family.

    Read more about Anthony Martinez and other at-risk incarcerated people.