Feature

Web Exclusive: Lethal Divide

A guide to understanding capital punishment in Colorado and arguments on both sides of the issue.

December 2008

Click here to read "The Politics of Killing," a story about what one death-row inmate's pending execution means for Governor Bill Ritter.

Thirty-two years have passed since capital punishment was reinstated in the United States, and the debates surrounding it—deterrence, cost, retribution, and more—continue. Proponents call the death penalty an "absolute justice," while detractors decry it as a "human rights violation." Today, support for the "ultimate punishment" has plummeted—only 45 percent support it nationwide—and the number of death-row executions is at an all-time low.

To help sort through the arguments on both sides of the issue and understand Colorado's use of capital punishment, we recommend the following websites, videos, and published sources.

VISIT

WATCH

  • Deadline: A fast-paced, dramatic documentary about the waning days of former Illinois Governor George Ryan. Upon learning that 13 men on death row had been found innocent, the Republican governor made the controversial decision to commute the sentences of all 167 men on death row in the state.
  • Frontline's "When Kids Get Life": Colorado was once lauded for its juvenile justice system, but after juvenile violence spiked nationwide during 1993's Summer of Violence, the treatment of young offenders shifted from rehabilitation to incarceration. In this segment, Frontline profiles five Colorado juveniles who have been sentenced to life without parole.
  • Dead Man Walking: A 1995 film starring Oscar-winner Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn brings Sister Helen Prejean's nonfiction book to the silver screen. Convicted murderer Matthew Poncelet—a mélange of Prejean's characters—transforms as he waits on death row.
  • 60 Minutes' "Insanity On Death Row": Greg Thompson received a death sentence more than 20 years ago for murdering a woman in Tennessee. While there is little question of his guilt, his appeal attorneys argue that Thompson—who has been diagnosed as schizophrenic and psychotic and takes medication daily—is not sane enough today to be executed by the state.

READ

  • "Begging Joe's Pardon": Seventy years after the state of Colorado executed Joe Arridy, a 23-year-old mentally retarded man convicted of the rape and murder of a teenage girl, 5280 contributor Michael de Yoanna chronicles a group of people gathering evidence of Arridy's innocence in the hopes that Governor Bill Ritter will posthumously pardon Arridy.
  • Archbishop Charles Chaput: The head of the Catholic flock in Denver and Northern Colorado, Archbishop Charles Chaput organizes his essays and newspaper columns (mostly from the Denver Catholic Register) by topic, including writings on respecting life and faith and public life.
  • Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States by Sister Helen Prejean (1994): Later adapted into an Oscar-winning movie (starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn), Dead Man Walking is a biographical account of Sister Helen Prejean's experience with a death-row inmate in Louisiana—and her passionate, moral case against capital punishment.
  • No Higher Calling, No Greater Responsibility: A Prosecutor Makes His Case by John Suthers (2008): Colorado Attorney General John Suthers explores the role of a prosecutor in his recent book on the legal system. Suthers, like Governor Bill Ritter, is a Catholic and a death-penalty advocate. He writes that while the death penalty is used less frequently in the United States, it should remain legal, if only for cases like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and serial killer Ted Bundy.
  • Debating the Death Penalty: Should America Have Capital Punishment? The Experts on Both Sides Make Their Case, edited by Hugo Adam Bedau and Paul G. Cassell (2005): Philosophers, judges, and lawyers from both sides of the death-penalty debate weigh in for a balanced discussion.
  • Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer's Reflections on Dealing with the Death Penalty by Scott Turow (2003): Best known for his best-selling courtroom thrillers, author Scott Turow turns to nonfiction to explore the death penalty after Illinois Governor George Ryan appointed him to a commission to reform the state's capital punishment system.