John Hickenlooper: Would He Commute Nathan Dunlap's Death Penalty If He Loses?
In June 2013, a month after Governor John Hickenlooper granted Chuck E. Cheese killer Nathan Dunlap a reprieve from execution but didn't commute his sentence, a poll showed that Colorado voters disagreed with his decision by a three-to-one margin. Since then, the furor has faded -- but the issue is primed to move front-and-center in Hickenlooper's reelection bid against Republican hopeful Bob Beauprez thanks to a newly released audio recording (hear it below) in which Hick speculates about granting clemency to Dunlap should he lose.
John Hickenlooper during the 2013 press conference when he announced his decision about Nathan Dunlap. Additional photos plus audio clips and more below.
Will the election come down to voters picking who's most likely to kill Dunlap? And how much ugliness will emerge along the way? Continue to get a sense of the possibilities, featuring responses from those on both sides of the controversy.
There's no debate about the heinous nature of Dunlap's crimes. On December 14, 1993, as we've reported, Dunlap entered a Chuck E. Cheese branch from which he'd previously been fired and shot five employees: Margaret Kohlberg, fifty, Sylvia Crowell, nineteen, Ben Grant and Colleen O'Conner, both seventeen, and Bobby Stephens, twenty. Only Stephens survived, and he was very seriously wounded.
Dunlap was captured within hours and convicted in 1996, at which point the jury opted for execution. He's been on death row ever since, and last year, a week was scheduled for the completion of the sentence: August 18-24.
The scene of the crime.
Then, on May 22, Hickenlooper announced his decision. Here's an excerpt from our post on the subject:
Hickenlooper thanked the victims of the murderous attack for sharing their stories with him and stressed that the decision had "weighed heavily on me for, well, it's been over a year now." But given his statutory responsibilities, "inaction wasn't an option."Organizations that had lobbied against executing Dunlap immediately praised Hickenlooper's political courage, while pro-death penalty officials such as Colorado Attorney General John Suthers and Jeffco DA Peter Weir pilloried him. We've included coverage of their divergent arguments here.
Among the questions Hickenlooper asked himself in considering what he would do included mulling whether the death penalty was "just or moral" and "a benefit to the world." The more he studied the topic, the more he concluded that the system was imperfect -- and given the seriousness of the subject, "it really needs to be perfect."
He stressed that he had no doubt about "the heinous nature of the crimes committed," but he was troubled by "the inequity of the system.
"I am deeply respectful of the suffering and loss that occurs," he said. "But it's hard to see...the benefit of the capital punishment system" -- one that takes fifteen to twenty years to wind through the court system and "extends the emotional hardship for those families...."
In the end, he realized that he couldn't in good conscience give the go-ahead to "kill someone who is no risk to society."
Despite the passions on both sides, however, the Dunlap decision faded from the foreground during the intervening year-plus. But it's returned to the spotlight thanks to Complete Colorado, which has shared audio obtained by attorney and radio-talk-show host Craig Silverman in an open records request.
The 45-minute-plus clip comes from a Hickenlooper interview with CNN for a death-penalty piece that was supposed to air in July but has been delayed. One report suggests that it could be broadcast as soon as Friday, but (update) a CNN representative tells us it will debut at 10 p.m. Eastern on September 7. Its title: Eye For an Eye.
A look at the executive order.
Complete Colorado highlights two exchanges. In the first, beginning at the 19:56 mark, a CNN interviewer asks: "But it (the death penalty) is an issue. And, you know, some of your opponents immediately announced that they were going to run on a death penalty platform, um, and in a sense, are putting themselves out there, and not that I'm thinking specifically of (Tom) Tancredo but I believe there are probably others, who are saying, 'Elect me, and we'll kill this guy.' Doesn't that feel kind of like a lynch mob? I mean in some, in some sense?"
To that, Hickenlooper responds: "Well we won't let that happen, I mean, that's obviously, that is -- does, feel that way. And, you know, if that becomes a political issue, in that context within a campaign, um, obviously there's a period of time between the election and, and the end of the year where individuals can make decisions, such as a governor can."
The second key moment is located just prior to the end of the conversation, beginning at 41:19. Replying to a CNN crew member who asks for additional specifics about the case, Hickenlooper says, "Well, you don't want to go into too much detail in these cases. But, you know, the, the, issue that a political campaign would make a human life, into, you know, a political football, is unacceptable. Right? And it's not... and a) I, I think it would backfire tremendously on any candidate that did that. And if they did do that, and if somehow they won, there are obviously remedies that the governor can do, you know, I could give it a full clemency between election day and the end of the year, I could...there are a number of different opportunities to make sure that doesn't happen. Again, keeping in mind it should not be a political football."
Here's the clip:
Silverman -- who was portrayed as "the liberal one" when he co-hosted a KHOW program with conservative Dan Caplis -- aired this material on Saturday morning during his current KNUS radio show. He also chatted with 18th Judicial District DA George Brauchler; whose office prosecuted Dunlap and he's currently seeking the death penalty against Aurora theater shooter James Holmes. No surprise that Brauchler ripped Hickenlooper for implying he could grant clemency to Dunlap should he lose to Beauprez, who's said he would sign the execution order.
Among Brauchler's comments: "What he's not telling Colorado, but he's telling CNN, is 'Don't worry, I've already granted clemency,' because either I'm going to get re-elected and he's not going to die or I'm going to lose and he's not going to die,"
Here's an embed of Brauchler's appearance on the Silverman show.
A Hickenlooper spokesman says his comments to CNN shouldn't be interpreted as a change in his approach to this issue. But conservative blogs such as Colorado Peak Politics have hammered him on the issue, suggesting that the death penalty issue may have a lot of life left in it after all.
Continue to see previous posts about Nathan Dunlap and the death penalty, including arguments against execution and responses from pro-death-penalty officials.