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  • Writer's pictureMario Nicolais

Death penalty needs debate

Updated: May 3, 2020

The outcomes in the Aurora Theater Shooting and the Fero’s Bar & Grill trials brought Colorado’s death penalty to the forefront over the past few months. The process and eventual sentences of James Holmes and Dexter Lewis have been scrutinized, reviewed and opined upon everywhere from water coolers to the editorial pages of almost every major newspaper in the state.

But did we learn anything? Or were the cases only fodder for a macabre reality television experience?

The media circus surrounding the Holmes trial turned into a morbid version of “The Truman Show,” streamed across the country. Many viewers let the trial play out on a separate screen or window as they went about their day-to-day work, perking up when the prosecutor’s voice lifted or defense counsel coaxed answers from key witnesses. “Breaking news” alerted the world when to tune-in for the titillating finale, when the jury spared Holmes’s life and the judge allowed his scorn for the defendant to finally bleed through. At the conclusion, everyone seemed to have an opinion, plenty of them voiced on social media.

Unfortunately, like the finale of any TV series, interest quickly receded and, after a few days and a couple retrospectives, public discussion trickled off.

On the heels of the Holmes sentence, the Fero Bar & Grill trial never attracted the same national spotlight. Just as horrific, though smaller in scale, the grisly details of that case made headlines in Denver for several weeks. It threatened to inject the incendiary topic of race into the mix. Had Lewis been sentence to die while Holmes continued to live, Colorado would have had four men on death row, each African-American and all products of rough childhoods. But when the jury granted Lewis a reprieve from death, the story faded even faster.

Now two weeks removed from Lewis’ sentence, Colorado has moved on.

Just as “Rectify,” the superb, critically acclaimed SundanceTV drama about a death-row inmate released — but not exonerated — after two decades, struggles to find ratings, the broader debate about the death penalty seems destined to retreat into the niche reserved for defense attorneys, criminal justice policy experts and the occasional political rally. That fate would be both terrible and predictable.

I don’t claim to know the answer. If anyone deserved the punishment of death, Holmes and Lewis did. I’m certain both prosecutors were right to pursue the sentence given Colorado’s current laws. But I’m equally uncertain whether the juries made the correct decision. Or whether the decision should even be in their hands. I am thankful I believe in heaven and hell and the eternal punishment I know both men will suffer.

But for our state, I hope more people demand that substantive debate continue rather than wait for a new atrocity to splash headlines. We need more Rectify and less Reality TV.

Mario Nicolais is an attorney and legal scholar at the Denver law firm of Hackstaff & Snow LLC.

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