Colorado Rights Blog

Nathan Woodliff-Stanley By: Nathan Woodliff-Stanley 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.



  • 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. 

  • Ronald Johnson is pre-diabetic, suffers from asthma and high blood pressure, and regularly uses an inhaler to breathe. His age and respiratory ailments put him at risk of serious illness and death if he contracts COVID-19. With over hundreds of active cases in Colorado’s prisons, his family fears he will not make it out alive. His daughter, Amber, says, “In prison, he can’t protect himself and he can’t social distance. My deep fear is that my dad will die in prison. That is an awful, traumatic reality to consider. My chest is tight just thinking about how quickly it spreads and how vulnerable he is.”

    Governor Hickenlooper shortened his sentence following testimony from family, friends and correctional officers advocating for his early release. Yet, he is still eight years away from parole. While he remains in prison, COVID-19 continues to spread. Ronald’s three siblings, four children and four grandchildren are desperate for his release.

    Read more about Ronald Johnson and other at-risk incarcerated people.

  • Tuesday Olson knew her pregnancy was in trouble and tried to access hospital care as soon as possible. But there was a problem: she was in jail. This is her story.
  • It’s time to end the death penalty in Colorado. Family members who lost loved ones to murder speak out against an unjust and broken system.