Monday, March 2, 2009

Report from Colorado hearings

A few weeks ago, Howard Morton, director of Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons, contacted us about having an MVFHR member testify at a hearing on the bill that would repeal Colorado's death penalty and divert the funds to the solving of cold cases. Howard's group already had many victims' families planning to testify in support of the bill, but they also wanted someone who could represent a national organization of victim's families who oppose the death penalty. We referred Howard to Illinois member Gail Rice, whose brother was murdered in Colorado. Gail traveled to Colorado to testify last week, and she now writes with this report:

Howard Morton, leader of the Colorado group Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons (FOHVAMP), asked me to represent Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights and testify in Denver, at Colorado’s House Judiciary Committee meeting on February 23, 2009. The testimony was in support of House Bill 1274, sponsored by House Majority Leader Paul Weissmann, which would abolish the death penalty and direct the roughly $4 million a year to create a Cold Case Task Force in the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to work on the 1,435 unsolved homicides in Colorado. Only one person has been put to death in Colorado in the past 45 years, and there are only two inmates currently on death row.

My brother, Denver policeman Bruce VanderJagt, had been murdered by a skinhead in Denver eleven years ago. Bruce’s killer then committed suicide with Bruce’s service revolver. Since the case was so widely publicized, I suspected that many people in Denver would remember it, and they did. It was a great privilege to meet Howard and his wife, Virginia, who had worked tirelessly for years to organize and minister to victims. Their son had been murdered in 1975, and the case has never been solved. I could not imagine the agony of having to deal with a homicide or disappearance that was never solved – talk about a lack of closure! Even those murder victims’ family members who supported the death penalty were eager to give it up if it meant that resources would become available to solve their cold cases. The question of how to punish murderers wasn’t relevant for them when the murderers hadn’t even been captured. “We wound up saying, ‘We’re willing to trade vengeance for justice,’” Morton said.

I had never before seen such raw pain from so many victims’ family members. Emotional testimony went on, first from those who supported the bill and then from those who opposed it, from 3:00 until 10:00 that night. Family members held up pictures and posters of their loved ones. One family member, Tina Terry, told the House Judiciary Committee, “Don’t look at me and tell me how sorry you are for my loss. Do something.”

Attorney General John Suthers, several district attorneys, and others testified against the measure, arguing that the death penalty was necessary for some criminals. Proponents of the death penalty also shared tragic stories. Some supported increased funding for cold case investigations but begged Committee members not to abolish the death penalty to do it.

Just before the voting took place, some Committee members shared how they intended to vote and explained why. Several said, “This bill is really about the death penalty.” Then the committee approved the bill in a 7-4 party-line vote, with the Democrats voting in favor. That was a better margin than we had expected, and we rejoiced at the outcome.

The bill next goes to the House Appropriations Committee. Howard said that it should sail through that committee. It will be harder, though, to get the bill passed in the full House.

We'll post Gail's testimony here tomorrow.

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