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OPINION: Should we give life to death?

Journalist of 30 years shares experience with death penalty.

Carol McKinley, CU News Corps

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By Carol McKinley
CU News Corps

The Aurora theater killer is in a diagnostic jail facility as authorities decide where to put him for the rest of his life.

Most folks I run into want to discuss his fate. They say they hope he somehow ends up in the general prison population so that the other prisoners will take care of him. Or that he’ll find a way to do himself in. Others say they want for him to get his Ph.D. and study his own mental illness.

Life goes on.

Reporters have scattered and I will bet that some of them are wondering why they can’t get excited about returning to their old lives, covering traffic backups and Bronco post-game reactions.

The Arapahoe County Justice Center still has a significant caseload as a stream of offenders slough through the metal detector, snaking off their belts with citations in hand. Others, in juror badges, ride the elevators.

Issues trail the trial like dust from Pigpen’s shoes.

What will happen with the death penalty in Colorado?  Two thoughts have emerged:

1. The death penalty is going down. We’ve now had two death penalty trials in less than a month that ended with life in prison for the defendants.  (The Holmes case and the trial of Dexter Lewis, convicted of stabbing five people to death in a Denver bar and setting the business on fire.) Both were decided by at least one juror, who canceled out the decisions of the other 11.

 1a – “So what? If you can’t get twelve people to be killed by the state, you don’t have it!” ~ David Kaplan, former head of the Office of the Colorado Public Defender.

2. The jury system that decides the death penalty needs to be changed in Colorado. 

2a- “From our standpoint, I don’t think any of the evidence could have come out any better than it did. It is what it is. You just need one.” ~ George Brauchler, Arapahoe County District Attorney


I expect for this to be a contentious issue put before the Colorado legislature very soon. We may see it on the ballot in 2016.  But this is not a new subject.  The most recent attempts to repeal the death penalty failed in 1999, 2009 and 2013.

I should mention that I was one of five members of the media selected to witness Colorado’s last execution, that of Gary Lee Davis. That was nearly 20 years ago, on October  13, 1997.


The writer as a young KOA radio reporter getting into the media van at 10 pm transporting witnesses to the "viewing."

Me (Carol McKinley) as a KOA radio reporter, getting into the media van at 10 p.m. to go witness Davis’s execution.

I remember sitting in a cold room waiting to see if then-Governor Roy Romer would grant a stay of execution for Davis. We watched as the secondhand on the clock ticked that last sixty seconds from 11:59 to midnight.

I remember his appeal attorney’s flaming red dress and matching nail polish. It was a striking outfit, worn so that Davis could pick her out in the small crowd sitting in uncomfortable chairs to watch him die.

I remember, too, when theater-like curtains pulled open to reveal Davis strapped to a metal table. His huge head turned to look our way. His eyes found his attorney right away. He turned his head back to stare at the door frame in front of him. That’s where his gaze stayed until he died.

I remember the whisper behind me the moment Davis’s face turned blue and the curtains pulled closed. “Put here there,” prosecutor Bob Grant said to the father of the woman Davis brutally murdered. “We got her done,” answered victim Ginny May’s sweet, sad, soft spoken dad.

I remember the dinner Ginny’s family had for me when I went out to interview them before the execution. It was taco pie casserole in a huge dish on a farm table and it was delicious. They were so heartbroken over the loss of her.

Gary Davis — one victim.

Dexter Lewis — 5 victims.

James Holmes — 12 victims.

One day, in the parking lot of the Arapahoe County Justice Center, someone called to me from the rows of parked cars. It was Craig Truman, the attorney who defended Gary Davis.

“How’s the trial going”? he asked.

I told him  we were waiting for a verdict in the first phase: guilty or not guilty by reason of insanity. He told me that Davis only wanted to fight his execution because he thought his appeals attorney was “hot.”

That’s a real eye-roller. But it’s probably true.

I didn’t have much problem watching Davis die, short of a few nightmares. So should the cruel mass murderer who broke so many lives when he opened fire in a crowded theater die? It doesn’t matter what I think about him. What matters is whether we’ll give the death penalty some thought if we get the chance to vote: will we give life to death, or bump it off?







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Explanatory multimedia reporting from CU Boulder journalism students
OPINION: Should we give life to death?