Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper tried to find middle ground in a clemency petition for convicted mass murderer Nathan Dunlap Wednesday, sealing neither his life nor his death, but settling instead on a temporary stay of execution. Hickenlooper made clear the stay would remain in effect as long as he is the governor.
Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler, whose office sought Dunlap’s execution, said Hickenlooper’s decision “does not feel like an act of courage and it sure isn’t leadership.”
“I’m confused. I’m frustrated,” Brauchler told reporters after Hickenlooper made his announcement at the state capitol building in Denver. “Disappointed isn’t strong enough.”
“The governor shrugged,” Brauchler added, also saying he would have been happier if Hickenlooper had made a definitive decision.
Instead, Brauchler charged that Hickenlooper has merely punted to future governors.
Dunlap was convicted of killing four employees at a Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant in 1993 and attempting to kill a fifth who survived the shooting attack. Dunlap, 19 at the time, had been recently fired from the restaurant. In the words of Eva Wilson, an assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case 17 years ago, he did it for revenge and for fame.
His legal appeals exhausted, Dunlap was scheduled for execution in August. Had the state killing been carried out, it would have been in the first in Colorado since 1997 and only the second since 1967.
In emotional comments, Hickenlooper said he struggled with the decision but ultimately decided that a temporary stay — which can be allowed to stand or be revoked by a future governor — satisfied his unease with the death penalty and still respected the rule of law and the work of the courts and jurors who sentenced Dunlap to die.
Each of the prosecutors who spoke to the media after Hickenlooper’s remarks noted that he ran for governor, in part, as a proponent of the death penalty.
“He made a choice to be judge and jury in this case,” said Dan May, the El Paso County district attorney. “This case did not need that.”
Hickenlooper consulted with victims’ families, clergy and other governors in making his decision. He also researched death penalty data and even polled people in Israel as to their views on capital punishment during a recent trip.
In his executive order, the governor even noted that Colorado wasn’t prepared to carry out the death penalty because the state doesn’t have lethal injection drugs on hand and would have to special order them.
The order also noted the inequity in death sentencing.
“If the state of Colorado is going to undertake the responsibility of executing a human being, the system must operate flawlessly,” Hickenlooper wrote in the order. “Colorado’s system for capital punishment is not flawless. … [D]eath is not handed down fairly. Many defendants are eligible for capital punishment but almost none are sentenced to death.”
In the end, he said, “I recognized as governor [that] I could not find the justice in making that decision.”
Dunlap is one of three people on death row in Colorado. Responding to a reporter’s question as to whether he could ever impose the death penalty in other cases, Hickenlooper said, “It’s hard to imagine.”
He said reaction to his decision among the victims’ family members was “largely disappointed.”
Many of the prosecutors amplified that disappointment in their remarks.
“There’s going to be one person … who goes to bed with a smile on their face tonight and that’s Nathan Dunlap,” Brauchler said. “He’s got one person to thank for that smile. That’s Gov. John Hickenlooper.”
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