By Jessica Fender
The Denver Post
Colorado could put child rapists to death under a bill that won a Senate committee's approval Monday and would put the state on par with just five others that allow the execution of such sex offenders.
Prosecutors could try for the death penalty in cases in which rape victims are 12 or younger, where DNA evidence is present and where the perpetrator has been previously convicted of a sex offense against a child.
The harsher sentences might run afoul of the Constitution — the U.S. Supreme Court will weigh in on the issue this year — and could discourage victims from reporting abuse by relatives, according to critics, who include victims' rights advocates.
But some of the most terrible offenders simply deserve death, said sponsor Sen. Steve Ward, R-Littleton. He referred to a Louisiana man who raped his 8-year-old stepdaughter and became the first such offender in the nation to receive a death sentence.
"The crimes we're looking at are particularly heinous," Ward said.
Colorado public defenders, who oppose the bill, originally estimated that it would make about 260 people a year eligible for the death penalty. It was unclear what an amendment, which limits the bill to repeat offenders, would do to that estimate.
In Louisiana, the one state that has sentenced child rapists to death, prosecutors have made capital cases of only two out of 180 eligible cases.
Constitutional challenges immediately followed the first of those two sentences, and the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule by June whether death is cruel and unusual punishment for felons who have not taken a life.
Senate Judiciary Committee members voted 5-2 to send Senate Bill 195 to the chamber's appropriations committee, which will weigh its as-yet-unknown price tag.
Critics of the bill say that current sentences, which in many cases amount to life in prison, are harsh enough.
Colorado sends child rapists and other serious sex offenders to prison for between four years and life, with the duration largely left to a judge's discretion.
Of the 1,200 people now incarcerated for the most serious sex crimes, only eight have received parole in the past decade, said Doug Wilson, Colorado's chief public defender.
Colorado joins Alabama, Missouri and Mississippi in seeking death for child rapists this year.
Montana, Oklahoma and South Carolina have passed similar laws since 2006, and Louisiana and Texas both approved such legislation in the mid-1990s, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center.
As high-profile cases such as the rape and murder of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford of Florida — namesake of the popular Jessica's Law — draw attention to crimes against children, many politicians have grown eager to get tough on offenders, Dieter said.