Prosecutors argue for maintaining killers’ death-penalty eligibility
DENVER – Prosecutors asked the Colorado Supreme Court on Monday to make two convicted killers eligible for the death penalty after their cases were stalled by questions over who can impose capital punishment.Randy Canister and Abraham Hagos were convicted in separate cases under a law that required death-penalty sentencing decisions to be made by three-judge panels. Before sentencing hearings could be held, the U.S. Supreme court declared a similar process in Arizona unconstitutional, prompting Colorado lawmakers to require death-penalty decisions to be made by juries.The two men are still awaiting sentencing. They are the last remaining Colorado death penalty cases in doubt under the Supreme Court’s June 2002 ruling.Hagos, who is already serving life in prison in an unrelated case, was convicted in Denver of hiring other people to kill a man expected to testify against him in a drug trial. Canister, who is being held in the Arapahoe County Jail, was convicted in the execution-style shootings of three teenagers in Aurora.Prosecutors told Colorado justices that judges in those cases were wrong when they ruled the U.S. Supreme Court decision applied directly to Colorado’s death-penalty law, declaring it unconstitutional and meaning the only possible sentence for Hagos and Canister was life without parole.Colorado’s law remained valid until February 2003, when the state Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional, Arapahoe County Chief Deputy District Attorney Paul Wolff said.”It created a big problem for Colorado’s death penalty statute, but the U.S. Supreme Court left it to the states to decide how to deal with it,” Wolff said. “A statute is not unconstitutional until this court says so.”After the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling, Colorado lawmakers met in special session and approved a new law giving death-penalty decisions to juries. The law also said a new sentencing jury could be impaneled in certain cases.Defense attorneys contend the way the law was written means it applied only to Canister and Hagos – making it unconstitutional.”There’s no doubt these individuals were targeted and no doubt this court should find this kind of legislation abhorrent,” said attorney Hollis Whitson, who represents both men.Defense attorney Linda Frolich said there was no question the U.S. Supreme Court ruling made Colorado’s death-penalty law invalid, meaning Hagos and Canister had to be sentenced to life without parole.”If the U.S. Supreme Court is demanding we do something, that has to be a declaration from them that something is unconstitutional,” she said.If prosecutors were allowed to seat new juries to sentence Hagos and Canister, the men would lose substantial legal protections they deserve, Whitson said. Those protections include the right to a jury – or even a judge – that sat through the trial and was familiar with the case.”These are the only people in the universe who wouldn’t have the same fact-finders,” she said.Denver Chief Appellate District Attorney Robin Whitley argued that the law could cover people other than Hagos and Canister. He said when lawmakers changed the law, they meant to require new sentencing juries for people like Hagos and Canister, who had been convicted but not yet sentenced under the system of three-judge panels.In its February 2003 ruling, the state Supreme Court invalidated death sentences for two men who had been sentenced by judges and required them to be sentenced to life without parole.
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