The life sentences that jurors recently handed down to two of the Colorado's most heinous mass murderers have jump-started debate on the death penalty's future in a state that rarely uses it, reported The Denver Post.
Prosecutors in both cases said death was the only appropriate sentence for the two men — and two-thirds of Coloradans polled in a survey during the Aurora theater trial agreed.
But the eventual actions of the 24 jurors in the two cases — although the precise breakdown for each remains unclear — re-energized the discussion over a punishment gathering resistance nationally.
By any measure, the crimes, three months apart in 2012, were devastating in their scope: 12 shot dead and 70 wounded inside a movie theater; five stabbed to death in a Denver bar later set ablaze.
The ongoing conversation about the death penalty in Colorado could touch on one element that raised concerns locally — and has appeared on the national radar.
The decision for a life sentence over death, in both cases, may have revolved around the vote of a single juror.
While the judge in the Aurora theater trial squashed any claims that there was a "plant" on the jury, the potential for one juror to nullify 11 other votes for death has drawn criticism.
But unanimity in pronouncing a death sentence remains the rule in most states. Colorado briefly abandoned that rule in 1995 after prosecutors — who became frustrated by juries declining to impose a death sentence — backed a controversial law that allowed a three-judge panel to sentence a defendant to death instead of a unanimous jury.
The state returned to juries in 2003.
Still, three states do not require jurors to be unanimous in handing down a death sentence. Alabama, Delaware and Florida allow a jury to recommend a death sentence without unanimity, and judges in each of those states have the power to override a jury's decision.
The law in Alabama allows for a 10-2 majority vote. Florida requires a simple majority when deciding whether aggravating circumstances exist or a defendant should live or die.
The American Bar Association, which does not take a position on the death penalty, released a resolution in February urging all jurisdictions with the death penalty to require unanimity among jurors in finding aggravating factors and in imposing death.
"This deliberative function is crucial in order to ensure that the death sentence is not being unfairly or arbitrarily imposed," the resolution reads.
While it's unclear what persuaded any individual jurors to spare the defendants in the Colorado cases, defense attorneys sought to establish mental health issues and child abuse as mitigators.
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