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Coloradans will decide whether suspects of first-degree murder should be denied bail

This Wednesday May 31, 2017, shows the door entrance to a holding cell inside the Summit County Jail in Breckenridge, Colorado (Hugh Carey/Summit Daily News via AP)
People charged with first-degree murder used to be denied bail in Colorado

Colorado voters will decide in November whether to amend the state constitution to once again allow judges to prohibit people charged with first-degree murder from being released on bail from jail ahead of their trial.

The legislature placed the question on the ballot Thursday by passing House Concurrent Resolution 1002 after the measure cleared its final hurdle in the Senate by a 35-0 vote. It previously passed the House on a 59-5 vote. Resolutions placing a question on the ballot that would change the state constitution require the support of two-thirds of the members in each chamber to advance.

The ballot measure will need the support of 55% of voters Nov. 5 to pass since it would amend the state constitution. The Colorado constitution can only be changed through a vote of the people.

People charged with first-degree murder used to be denied bail in Colorado when a judge found that the proof was evident or the presumption was great that they committed the offense. But the state Supreme Court ruled last year that the legislature’s 2020 decision to repeal Colorado’s death penalty meant that those defendants were eligible for pretrial release and that judges had to set their bail.

That’s because the state constitution requires that bail be denied for people charged with capital offenses, which at the time the death penalty was repealed was only first-degree murder. Since the death penalty is no longer on the books in Colorado, the Colorado Supreme Court found that bail could no longer be denied for people charged with first-degree murder – no matter how heinous their alleged crimes.

The ruling prompted judges to set bail at astronomical amounts – including $100 million in one instance – for first-degree murder suspects. But victims still worried that the Colorado Supreme Court ruling could jeopardize their safety, or at least their sense of security.

House Concurrent Resolution 1002 would let judges once again deny bail to people charged with first-degree murder if they rule the proof is evident or the presumption is great that a defendant committed the offense.

“We have seen harrowing examples in Colorado of first-degree murder defendants posting bail and committing further violent crime before their court date,” state Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat and a lead sponsor of the bill, said in a written statement. “Making first-degree murder defendants ineligible for bail would give victims and their families peace of mind and help keep our communities safe.”

Fields’ son, Javad, and his fiance, Vivian Wolfe, were fatally shot in 2005 and the two men responsible, Robert Ray and Sir Mario Owens, were convicted of murder in the killings and sentenced to death. However, their sentences were commuted to life in prison by Polis when he signed the bill repealing Colorado’s death penalty.

“This is the least that we could do,” Sen. Tom Sullivan, a Centennial Democrat whose son was murdered in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting. “This is by far the least we can do is to make sure that these killers do not have the ability to see the light of the day until their trial has been completely adjudicated.”

Sullivan opposed the repeal of the death penalty.

House Concurrent Resolution 1002 was being considered alongside House Bill 1225, which would make a corresponding change in state statute. That measure also passed the Senate on Thursday and now awaits Gov. Jared Polis’ signature.

Read more at The Colorado Sun

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.