On a spring day 153 years ago, a wagon drove John Stoefel to a cottonwood tree near Cherry Creek. Two days earlier, Stoefel had killed his brother-in-law. In a few minutes, about 1,000 people would watch him hanged, the 1st person in Colorado killed by legally ordered execution.
As we await word on whether the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals will spare death-row inmate Nathan Dunlap’s life, it’s a good time to take a look back at capital punishment in Colorado.
In the years since Stoefel’s execution, Colorado has put to death 102 others, according to figures compiled by the University of Colorado’s Michael Radelet, who has written the definitive history on the use of the death penalty in Colorado. Most of those executions came in the state’s earlier years — interesting fact: Stoefel was buried in Cheesman Park, when that space was a cemetery — and Colorado has put to death only 1 killer in the past 45 years.
Dunlap is currently one of three inmates on death row. That number could grow in the near future if Edward Montour, a convicted murderer who then killed a corrections officer, is resentenced to death in a hearing that could commence this year. Montour had previously been on death row but had his sentence overturned because it was delivered by a judge following Montour’s guilty plea to murder. The Colorado Supreme Court ruled that death sentences must be decided by a jury.
Another potential death-row resident — hired killer Josiah Sher — pleaded guilty this week and avoided the death sentence prosecutors were seeking.
Below is a timeline on the history of capital punishment in Colorado that I compiled for this week’s look at the death penalty in the state but we ultimately didn’t have space for in the newspaper.
Colorado death penalty history:
Colorado has executed 103 people in its history. Below is a brief chronology of the death penalty in Colorado.
•1859: John Stoefel, who committed the 1st murder in Denver, also became the 1st person killed by legally mandated execution in Colorado.
•1861: Colorado adopts a formal death-penalty law.
•1889: New law requires all executions be conducted at the state prison in Cañon City.
•1897: Death penalty abolished in Colorado.
•1901: Death penalty re-instated.
•1934: Colorado becomes the 2nd state in the nation to adopt lethal gas as the execution method. Previous executions were performed by hanging.
•1972: The U.S. Supreme Court case Furman v. Georgia halts executions nationwide.
•1979: The death penalty is re-instated in Colorado.
•1988: Colorado adopts lethal injection as the execution method.
•1995: Colorado mandates that 3-judge panels decide whether to impose death sentences in new cases. Juries had previously made the decision.
•1997: Gary Davis becomes the 1st Colorado inmate executed in 30 years.
•2001: Ronald Lee White is sentenced to life in prison after his previous death sentence was overturned when undisclosed evidence was found.
•2002: Frank Rodriguez, sentenced to death for kidnapping and murder, dies on death row from Hepatitis C complications.
•2003: 3 inmates have their death sentences changed to life in prison after the U.S. Supreme Court rules death sentences by judges unconstitutional.
•2005: Robert Harlan has his death sentence changed to life in prison after a court rules jurors improperly consulted a Bible when deciding his sentence.
[source: University of Colorado Professor Michael Radelet]
(source: Denver Post)