After her son was brutally murdered in 2005, Colorado Senator Rhonda Fields (D-Aurora) spent years searching for justice. As a private citizen and single mom, she sponsored Crime Stoppers ads on local bus benches to find the killers, met regularly with the Aurora Chief of Police, and sat through five trials (sometimes leaving the courtroom in tears) to be a voice for the victims. Fields says the quest was painfully long and emotionally depleting—but ultimately vindicating when the two men accused of killing Javad Marshall Fields and his fiancée Vivian Wolfe were unanimously convicted and sentenced to death.

On March 23, Fields says that hard-won justice was sabotaged by the stroke of a pen, when Gov. Jared Polis not only signed a bill to repeal the death penalty in Colorado, but also commuted the sentences of three men on death row to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Two of those three inmates, Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray, were convicted of killing her son to prevent him from testifying as a prosecution witness in the 2004 murder of his friend, Gregory Vann.

“Justice was hijacked for Javad and Vivian,” says Fields. The governor’s decision to commute the sentences disrespects years of investigative work by police, litigation by prosecutors, testimony by witnesses, and deliberation by jurors, she adds. “All of that was undermined.”

Polis’ decision is also impacting current cases. On March 30, for instance, prosecutors in the 17th Judicial District filed a motion to withdraw consideration of the death penalty in an ongoing trial for the killing of an Adams County sheriff’s deputy in 2018, reports the Denver Post. “Deputy Heath Gumm’s family and friends have been tremendously victimized due to the loss of their loved one in the line of duty,” the motion states. “At this point, pursuing a death sentence in this case prolongs that victimization, knowing that the People have no reasonable likelihood of overcoming the governor’s opinion on the death penalty.”

Protecting Victims

Courtesy of Rhonda Fields

Before its repeal, Colorado law allowed prosecutors to seek the death penalty for crimes with aggravating factors such as killing crime witnesses and on-duty police officers as well as killing multiple victims. Owens, for example, had already received a life sentence for the 2004 murder of Vann before he was tried for killing Marshall Fields and Wolfe.

Without the death penalty, says Fields, there is no accountability for the additional murders. “What do you give someone who’s already serving life in jail for taking these two innocent souls?” she says. “There shouldn’t be freebies.”

During the 15 years since her son’s death, Fields’ quest for justice has grown into a broader advocacy for victims’ rights. As a private citizen, she pushed for stronger protections for witnesses, resulting in passage of the Javad Marshall Fields and Vivian Wolfe Witness Protection Act in 2006. In 2010, Fields was elected to the Colorado State House, serving three terms before winning her current Senate seat in 2016.

Fields says her positions on criminal justice have evolved over the years. After serving on the Colorado Commission on Criminal Juvenile Justice starting in 2007, Fields sponsored multiple criminal justice reform bills, which covered topics ranging from expanding parole eligibility for special needs prisoners to restoring voting rights to parolees, and helping parolees reintegrate into society. Fields credits the mentorship of Tom Clements, former head of the Colorado Department of Corrections, with expanding her views. “He helped me understand what they do to manage people who have committed crimes,” she says. 

In 2012, after a shooter killed 12 people in a Century 16 movie theater in her Aurora district, Fields sponsored two gun reform bills that became state law in 2013. On the day before the bills were signed, Clements was shot and killed by a former inmate at the front door of his home. “I have learned to change my views about how our justice system can be imperfect and broken in some scenarios,” she says. “But I have never changed my views about the death penalty.”

Colorado’s decision to repeal the death penalty echoes a nationwide trend, as public support for capital punishment has dropped from a high of 80 percent in 1994 to 56 percent in 2019, according to Gallup. Opponents, including some families of victims, say the death penalty is unevenly applied and costly to taxpayers. And those with the authority to approve executions are less likely to do so, especially in Western states, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. In 2013, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper granted an indefinite reprieve to Nathan Dunlap, the third man who sat on death row, who was convicted of eight counts of first-degree murder after shooting employees at a Chuck E. Cheese in Aurora in 1993. The state’s last execution was over two decades ago, in 1997.

While Polis had 10 days to sign the bipartisan death penalty repeal that was sent to him by state lawmakers in March, there was no requirement—or time limit—for him to commute the sentences of death row inmates. The death penalty repeal only applies to crimes committed after July 1, which does not impact the sentences of Owens, Ray, or Dunlap. In making his decision, Polis didn’t cite any trial flaws or humanitarian reasons for commuting the sentences. Owens and Ray were still in the appellate process when their sentences were commuted.

Instead, Polis linked his clemency to the death penalty repeal: “Commutations are typically granted to reflect evidence of extraordinary change in the offender. That is not why I am commuting these sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole,” he said in his announcement of clemency. “Rather, the commutations of these despicable and guilty individuals are consistent with the abolition of the death penalty in the state of Colorado, and consistent with the recognition that the death penalty cannot be, and never has been, administered equitably in the state of Colorado.”

Seeking Input

Polis says the decision to commute the sentences was done “after a thorough outreach process to the victims and their families.” But although the legislature considered a death penalty repeal for two years (a previous 2019 bill was tabled), Fields says that Polis didn’t reach out to her until a couple weeks ago—and that his mind seemed to be made up before they spoke. “I got the impression that he wanted to just make the decision and move on,” says Fields. “I think I was just a box to check off.”

Polis has sidestepped questions about clemency this year, telling the Colorado Sun that such requests would be judged on their individual merits. But Fields points to an early 2019 media interview where Polis signaled that he would commute the three death penalty sentences if the legislature passed a repeal. “If the state, Republicans and Democrats, were to say, and I were to sign, a bill that said we no longer have the death penalty in Colorado … I would certainly take that as a strong indication that those who are currently on death row should have their sentences commuted to life in prison,” Polis told CPR in February 2019.

Fields says that given Polis’ earlier statement, writing the death penalty repeal bill to apply only to new crimes disingenuously gave lawmakers cover to vote for legislation that didn’t seem to impact the sentences of the men already on death row. “This bill was a bait-and-switch. This was a shell game,” says Fields. “The governor had signaled to the press that if he got the bill on his desk that he would sign the repeal and he would commute the sentences.”

George Brauchler, district attorney for the 18th Judicial District where all three death row cases took place, called the commutations offensive. “Unlike the signing of the death penalty repeal bill, there was no urgency to commuting the sentences of these murderers of multiple Coloradans; combined, they have murdered seven innocent people,” he said in a statement. Brauchler also called the decision to commute the sentences during a global pandemic, “disrespectful to the victims, the jurors, and the public.”

State Sen. Julie Gonzales, (D-Denver) a sponsor of the repeal, applauded Polis’ decision on social media: “It has been my intention at every step of the process over the past two years to treat everyone involved with dignity and respect,” she added.

Respecting Victims

In a written response to 5280, Polis declined to share further reasoning for his decision to grant clemency, but expressed support for the victims and their families. “The governor has deep respect for Senator Fields and her family and for all of the victims. He deliberately did not identify the offenders in the Executive Orders granting commutation, other than by their DOC numbers,” wrote spokesperson Conor Cahill.

“This decision was not something the governor took lightly,” Cahill wrote. “The Governor’s Office proactively reached out to victims and their families over the past few weeks as it became clear the legislature would approve the repeal, and as the governor recognized that the archaic death penalty is now a thing of the past in Colorado.”

Polis met with some victims in person and others by phone, Cahill added. “The victims expressed a range of opinions on the matter of commutation. While he understands not everyone will agree with this decision, he hopes that this provides the victims and their families some closure to a process that otherwise would have dragged on for years.”

Fields says the issue is far from closed, and implications of the death penalty repeal and commuted sentences remain—including lowering the bar for penalizing more heinous crimes and reducing protections for crime witnesses. “This is not done and it’s not over because it’s just going to reduce the sentencing code and criteria,” she says. “We’re mandating to elected officials across the state that everybody gets the same penalty no matter how many people they kill.”

Despite the passage of the repeal, Fields says she will continue to advocate for crime victims and work with her colleagues to best represent constituents. “I believe I can still have productive relationships with people even though we disagree,” she says. “But I will never forget.”

(From the Archive: The Politics of Killing)