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Eye for an Eye

The grisly legacy of Colorado's death penalty past


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The hanging of Edward Ives was horribly botched.

The state of Colorado killed Ives, a 42-year-old career criminal who had been convicted of shooting and killing a police officer during a raid on a Denver brothel, at the Cañon City State Penitentiary on Jan. 10, 1930.

The gallows used in Colorado at the time were complicated contraptions involving weights, beams, ropes and pulleys, designed to break the necks of the condemned by jerking them upward, as opposed to the old-fashioned method of having them fall through a trap door.

The weight used to jerk Ives upward worked, but it worked too well. Because Ives weighed only 80 pounds, he was flung toward the heavens with such force that the hanging rope flew off the pulleys, and Ives landed on the ground nearby.

Semiconscious, he yelled, "You can't hang a man twice."

He was wrong.

The executioners made another attempt, and this time, the machinery worked properly -- though it still failed to break Ives' neck, and he strangled to death slowly.

Ives' death is just one out of 102 chronicled by Mike Radelet, a CU-Boulder professor and nationally recognized expert on the death penalty, who has taken it upon himself to document every legal execution in Colorado's history, from the territorial days of the mid-19th century to 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a moratorium on the death penalty. Only one person -- Gary Davis, in 1997 -- has been executed in Colorado since.

Radelet, an opponent of the death penalty, was hired to advise Illinois Gov. George Ryan after the governor declared a statewide moratorium on capital punishment there in 2000 following revelations that numerous innocent people had been sentenced to death in the state.

Last year, Radelet accepted a faculty position at CU-Boulder's sociology department. One of his first projects was to teach an undergraduate class in which students helped him gather documentation on all known executions in Colorado. As a starting point, they used the research of Watt Espy, a self-educated Alabama man who has attempted to document every single execution in the history of the United States -- believed to total more than 18,000.

Using Espy's list for Colorado, Radelet and his students fanned out to libraries and archives across the state, digging up court records, newspaper articles, death certificates, and any other available documentation.

They deliberately excluded extra-judicial lynchings -- in which accused criminals were hanged without an official trial, often by angry mobs -- because they are so hard to document. Such executions, common in the 19th century, are believed to have outnumbered legal executions.

All of those legally executed in Colorado have been men.

Radelet is now in the process of synthesizing the information into an academic article, which he hopes to publish in the CU Law Review and eventually develop further into a book.

"The purpose is simply to know where we have been, because it tells us something about where we are going," Radelet says of the research.

His main conclusion may seem to run counter to the perceived prodeath penalty sentiment that has long been prevalent. National polls indicate that a majority of Americans continue to support the death penalty. While support for executions in Colorado has been relatively high in the last 25 to 30 years, Radelet says the overall trend over the past 143 years points toward Colorado's death penalty being slowly phased out.

"By stepping back and taking a long-term view of this, we can see that the history of the death penalty in Colorado has been a history of gradual abolition," Radelet said. "The high support in the last few decades has been an aberration."

Hanged in 48 hours

In Colorado's first execution, which took place on April 9, 1859, in the settlement of Denver, John Stoefel was hanged for shooting his brother-in-law. Both men were gold prospectors, and Stoefel wanted his brother-in-law's gold dust. The nearest official court was in Leavenworth, Kan., but a "people's court" was assembled, and Stoefel was convicted and hanged within 48 hours of the murder.

Over time, as the judicial process grew to include more thorough procedures and avenues of appeal, the average time between crime and execution increased steadily, from less than a month in the 1850s, to four years by the 1960s.

Meanwhile, the frequency of executions in Colorado has decreased, Radelet notes. The frequency hit its peak in the 1930s, a decade in which the state executed 25 people. The peak single year was 1930, with seven hangings. In the 1940s, the number of executions for the decade dropped to 13, and only three people were executed in the 1950s. Six were executed in the 1960s, none in the 1970s or the 1980s, and only one during the 1990s.

Another trend is the increasing tendency to remove executions from the public sphere. In the beginning, hangings were major public spectacles and social events.

Though Denver consisted of only 150 buildings at the time, about 1,000 spectators attended Stoefel's hanging in 1859. In Central City, 2,000 spectators witnessed the 1870 hanging of George Smith, convicted of robbing and strangling to death a milkman. And in Gunnison, a "large crowd" watched the 1881 hanging of Thomas Coleman, convicted of killing a man over $5 lost in a card game. After the hanging, Coleman's body was left to freeze, and bits of the body were chipped off for souvenirs.

The greatest crowd -- estimated at between 15,000 and 20,000 people -- showed up to watch the hanging of Andrew Green on July 27, 1886, in Denver. Green, a 25-year-old African-American, was convicted of robbing and killing a driver for the Denver City Railway Co.

The gallows failed to break Green's neck, and the crowd of thousands watched as Green slowly suffocated to death, finally dying after 22 minutes.

Green's hanging sparked intense debate over whether executions should be public, which led to a law being passed three years later, ordering that all executions from then on take place inside the walls of the state prison in Cañon City. Under the new law, the exact day and time of executions was to be a secret, only a few people would be allowed to watch, and no newspaper reporters would be allowed.

Radelet says community leaders in Denver, including newspaper editors, felt the huge public-execution spectacles reflected poorly on the city's image.

"It brought out the worst in everybody," Radelet said. "There was public drunkenness, general rowdiness, and there was not the concern for the sanctity of life that the newspapers thought it deserved."

Bungled hangings

Yet another significant trend has been the constant effort over time to make executions more "humane."

In the period leading up to 1934, when Colorado hanged its capital offenders, numerous executions were botched.

James Miller, a 23-year-old man described as a "mulatto," was the first man to be sent to the gallows after Colorado achieved statehood in 1876. Miller, a former soldier, was convicted of shooting and killing a man who had earlier forced him, at gunpoint, to leave a dance hall reserved for whites.

When Miller was hanged in 1877 in West Las Animas, the trap door would at first not open. When it eventually fell, the trap door detached and came to rest on the ground below. Miller dropped, but the hanging rope was too long, and Miller's feet came to rest on the trap door below. The trap door was then removed, so that Miller could swing freely. He then strangled for 25 minutes before expiring. The local sheriff, reportedly distraught over the botched execution, resigned and left town.

The only execution to take place in Colorado Springs was also bungled. W.H. Salisbury was hanged at the El Paso County Jail on June 17, 1881, for the shooting death of a Buena Vista police officer.

Salisbury maintained that a friend had actually pulled the trigger. On the scaffold, he tearfully maintained his innocence. When the trap door opened, the hanging rope broke off from a hook, causing Salisbury to fall to the ground. The rope was reattached, but physicians found that Salisbury had broken his neck and died from the fall.

The gallows were eventually made more "sophisticated" so that convicts' necks would be broken, ensuring a swift death. One model worked similar to a modern toilet, using a 50-gallon tub of water that was emptied by pulling out a plug. As the water trickled out, a "float" went down, raising the opposite end of a beam, which hit a lever that released the weight that would jerk the convict upward.

But the efforts to perfect hangings failed. Instead of having their necks broken, numerous convicts were still strangled slowly to death in the gallows. Of the last 15 people hanged in Colorado, only two expired from broken necks.

Colorado's worst murderer

In 1934, the hangings were replaced by the gas chamber, in which the condemned were poisoned to death with cyanide gas. The first to die in the new chamber was William Cody Kelley, convicted of beating a rancher with a pipe, binding him with barbed wire, and burning his house down. Three days before the execution, the new gas chamber was tried out on a pig, a dog, a pigeon and a few canaries.

Two Colorado Springs men died in the chamber. Martin Sukle, a 35-year-old janitor, was put to death on May 22, 1942, for killing his wife's lover. John Sullivan, 42, was executed on Sept. 20 the following year for raping a woman and stabbing her to death with a letter opener. Experts were "practically unanimous" that Sullivan was mentally retarded.

The gas chamber was not perfect, however, as evidenced by the execution of Colorado's worst murderer, John Gilbert Graham. Graham was executed Jan. 11, 1957, for blowing up a United Airlines passenger plane carrying his mother and 43 other people, all of whom perished.

Graham had packed 25 sticks of dynamite in his mother's suitcase, and the plane blew up 18 minutes after taking off from Stapleton Airport on its way to Portland, Ore. Some alleged that Graham's motive was to collect on his mother's life-insurance policy.

During his execution, Graham gasped, screamed and strained at the straps that tied him to the chair inside the gas chamber, prompting the warden to comment that this was not "normal procedure," but that it had happened before with other executions.

The gas chamber was last used on June 2, 1967, to kill Luis Jose Monge, a Denver insurance salesman who was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in New York. Monge, 48, had killed his wife and three of the couple's 10 children after his wife had discovered he'd had an incestuous relationship with one of their daughters.

Monge's death was also the last to take place in the United States prior to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1972-1976 moratorium on capital punishment.

Since then, the only person executed in Colorado was Gary Davis, who was put to death in 1997 for abducting, raping, torturing and killing Virginia May, a 33-year-old Byers housewife. By then, Colorado had begun using lethal injection, now the most common method throughout the United States.

Change of heart

Pro-death penalty advocates argue loudly that putting to death those criminals who have engaged in the most heinous of murders is a fitting punishment and a deterrent to crime.

However, Radelet argues that historical trends indicate growing unease about the death penalty. He also suggests that opposition to capital punishment isn't just a modern-day phenomenon.

In the late 19th century, a strong statewide sentiment to abolish the death penalty led to a moratorium on capital punishment in Colorado, which lasted from 1897 to 1901. However, the moratorium led to an increase in illegal lynchings, helping prompt the return of the official death penalty.

In 1966, Republican Gov. John Love suspended all executions pending a state referendum on capital punishment. At the time, initial polls showed support for abolition. But sentiments changed after a wave of gruesome murders that year -- including the rape and killing of a female CU-Boulder student, and the acts of Charlie Whitman, who climbed a tower at the University of Texas and shot and killed 16 people. In the end, voters decided to retain the death penalty by a 3-1 ratio.

Other lessons can also be learned from the data, Radelet says. A noteworthy portion of those executed in Colorado's history have been either ethnic minorities or immigrants. According to Radelet's research, 25 of the 102 people executed belonged to ethnic minorities, and of the 77 considered non-Hispanic whites, at least a dozen were immigrants.

Of all those executed, 90 percent were convicted of killing white victims.

The racial attitudes of past times are evident in some of the contemporary news accounts. When Jose Ortiz was executed in Conejos County on July 16, 1889, the Rocky Mountain News wrote that "Ortiz was small and stunted, and a typical Mexican, stunted naturally and morally as well as physically."

Undoubtedly guilty

While many of Colorado's executions may have been gruesome, many of those put to death had committed crimes far more hideous.

James Foster of Greeley, executed in 1931, was convicted of killing his wife and three children by dousing them with gasoline and setting them on fire. Donald Fearn of Pueblo, executed in 1942, was convicted of kidnapping, torturing and raping 16-year-old Alice Porter before he murdered her with a hammer. And Frank Martz of Littleton was convicted of beating, strangling and mutilating 3-year-old Kathleen Geist, whose body was found crammed under a kitchen sink.

Many of those executed confessed to their crimes. "The vast majority were undoubtedly guilty," Radelet says.

But research of individual death-penalty cases, performed by other academics and historians, has indicated that, in at least a few cases, innocent people have been executed in Colorado.

"The evidence is very strong," Radelet said.

Moreover, a number of people should probably have been found not guilty by reason of insanity or mental retardation, he believes.

For example, Joe Arridy, convicted of sexually assaulting and murdering a Pueblo woman named Dorothy Drain, was killed in the gas chamber in 1937 despite strong evidence that he was both retarded and innocent. His IQ was reported to be 46, and three psychiatrists considered him to have the mind of a 6-year-old child.

Death by jury

This summer, Radelet saw another possibility that Colorado might again move away from capital punishment, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state's method of handing down the death penalty was unconstitutional.

Up until 1995, juries in Colorado decided whether capital offenders should receive the death penalty. That year, the state's lawmakers voted to place the decision in the hands of a three-judge panel, because they felt juries weren't sentencing enough people to death. The change failed to produce more executions, however, prompting lawmakers to debate whether the statutes should yet again be changed to place the decision in the hands of a single judge.

That discussion became moot in June, when the Supreme Court ruled that death-penalty decisions must be made by juries -- a ruling that specifically impacted three of Colorado's five death-row inmates, who had been sentenced to death by three-judge panels.

In response, Gov. Bill Owens called a special session of the Legislature to change the state's death-penalty statutes. Many legislators voiced support for a system in which a 10-2 "supermajority" of a jury could decide to mete out the death penalty. However, due to concerns that this might not fully satisfy the Supreme Court, legislators eventually voted to require a unanimous jury decision.

Owens, who complained during his 1998 gubernatorial campaign that Colorado wasn't executing enough people, had expressed support for the concept of a supermajority. However, he agreed to sign the bill requiring unanimity.

"He preferred, at this time, the unanimous jury, because it would be more sure to meet the standard of the Supreme Court," said Dan Hopkins, a spokesman for Owens.

Radelet and other capital-punishment critics had seen the special session as an opportunity to argue for abolition. But legislators weren't interested in discussing the death penalty's merits or faults, only how to make sure executions remained constitutional in Colorado, he says.

"Everybody nodded politely but moved on quickly, because it was time to get legislation passed and get back to killing people," he said.

Shouldn't be easy

Death-penalty supporters disagree with Radelet's contention that the history of capital punishment points toward abolishing the death penalty.

"Abolition is not where we're heading," said Bob Grant, the district attorney for Adams County, who was involved in drafting the new legislation returning death-penalty decisions to juries. A vocal proponent of the death penalty, Grant prosecuted both Gary Davis and one of Colorado's current death-row inmates, Robert Harlan.

The fact that executions have become more rare in Colorado may simply mean that the state has gotten better at refining the death penalty as an instrument of justice, Grant said. That, he said, may in fact strengthen support for capital punishment.

The death penalty "should not, and it never should have been, easy," Grant said, but should be reserved for the very few criminals who commit some of the most heinous acts.

"If we have evolved to a system, gradually, that requires the state to fully prove its case [against an offender], then that's a positive thing," Grant said.

Grant called Radelet "biased" and said that he "couldn't care less" about his study.

"Radelet is a very ardent opponent of the death penalty, so I don't trust anything he writes," Grant said.

Hopkins, Owens' spokesman, said he also believes support remains strong in Colorado. "There's certainly bipartisan support in the Legislature," he said, adding that the majority of testimony during the special session was in support of retaining capital punishment.

Neither supporters nor opponents can point to a recent poll of Colorado residents measuring feelings about the death penalty. Nationwide, however, Gallup polls show support has fallen from a high of 80 percent in 1994, to 72 percent in May of 2002. An ABC News/Washington Post poll in May measured support at 65 percent.

When people were asked if they favored the death penalty given life without parole as an alternative, 52 percent supported capital punishment in the Gallup poll, while 46 percent supported it in the ABC News/Washington Post poll.

Radelet notes that two states, Maryland and Illinois, have enacted moratoriums, halting executions pending reviews of their systems, in the past three years. Nebraska lawmakers also voted for a moratorium, and New Hampshire's Legislature voted to abolish the death penalty, though both moves were vetoed by the states' respective governors.

Meanwhile, the number of new death sentences has decreased in the past five years in some of the most prolific death-penalty states, including Texas, Florida and California, Radelet says.

Just last month, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed executions of mentally retarded people, and even more recently, a judge found the federal death penalty unconstitutional, though it's uncertain whether the ruling will have an impact beyond its specific case.

All of it, Radelet maintains, points toward abolition.

"The Colorado Legislature," Radelet said, "is swimming against the tide."

Current death row inmates in Colorado

Robert Harlan, 38, convicted in 1995 of murdering casino waitress Rhonda Maloney and attempting to murder a woman coming to her aid.

Nathan Dunlap, 28, convicted in 1996 of murdering four employees at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in Aurora: Colleen O'Connor, Sylvia Crowell, Benjamin Grant and Marge Kohlberg.

Francisco Martinez, 28, convicted in 1998 of murdering 14-year-old Brandy Duvall in Jefferson County.

William Cody Neal, 46, convicted of murdering three women in Jefferson County: Rebecca Holberton, Candace Walters and Angela Fite.

George Woldt, 25, convicted in 2000 of murdering Colorado Springs college student Jacine Gielinski.


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