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Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signs bill abolishing death penalty

March 23 (UPI) -- Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on Monday signed legislation making the state the 22nd to abolish the death penalty.

In addition to signing the bill, he commuted the death sentences of three death row inmates. Nathan Dunlap, Mario Owens and Robert Ray will now serve life in prison without the possibility of parole.

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"Commutations are typically granted to reflect evidence of extraordinary change in the offender. That is not why I am commuting these sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole," Polis said. "Rather, the commutations of these despicable and guilty individuals are consistent with the abolition of the death penalty in the state of Colorado, and consistent with the recognition that the death penalty cannot be, and never has been, administered equitably in the state of Colorado."

Polis' signature comes nearly a month after Colorado's House of Representatives voted to repeal the state's death penalty law. Colorado's Senate passed the legislation Jan. 31 with a 19-13 vote.

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The legislation bans the death penalty as a punishment for any crime committed after July 1, 2020. It's not retroactive for Dunlap, Owens and Ray, hence Polis' commutation.

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Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, applauded Polis for commuting the sentences of the three death row inmates.

"The use of the death penalty in Colorado and across the country has been a failed experiment infected with serious legal errors and racial bias that run contrary to principles of fairness and justice," she said.

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This historic move by the state of Colorado marks a significant development in the ongoing fight to end the use of the death penalty in our country. Evidence shows that race plays an especially pernicious role in the administration of the death penalty and that was particularly true in Colorado, where death penalty sentences were largely issued against black defendants."

Colorado has executed one person -- Gary Davis in 1997 -- since the death penalty was reinstated in the state in 1974.

In 2013, former Gov. John Hickenlooper signed an executive order granting an indefinite stay of execution for Dunlap, saying the state's system for capital punishment "is not flawless." It was considered to be an unofficial moratorium on the punishment in the state.

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Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said Colorado's move to abolish the death penalty is part of a growing trend in the United States, with one state dropping the form of punishment every year or two over the past decade.

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"This is not a surprise. Public support for capital punishment has been thinning and is near a generation low," he said.

"Governor Polis recognized that, as distasteful as the crimes were that resulted in the three remaining death sentences in the state, it was better to close out this chapter in Colorado's criminal justice history than to let the issue fester while unnecessarily spending millions more of taxpayer dollars."

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