DENVER — Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper told FOX31 Denver Monday that the looming execution of Nathan Dunlap, the Chuck E. Cheese killer, is the hardest decision he’s faced yet as governor.
A district judge is set to schedule an execution date for Dunlap, who murdered four people inside an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese 20 years ago, on May 1; and that execution date would likely be some time in August.
Phil Cherner, who represents Dunlap, told FOX31 Denver Monday that he hasn’t contacted the governor’s office yet, but that he will be asking Hickenlooper to commute his client’s death sentence if and when an execution date is set.
Hickenlooper has known this moment was approaching; and he’s been grappling with the issue for the last nine months.
He’s still nowhere close to a clear position.
“I think it’s the toughest thing I’ve had to deal with,” Hickenlooper told FOX31 Denver Monday.
A month ago, Hickenlooper told House Democrats he was likely to veto legislation that would have repealed Colorado’s death penalty; the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Claire Levy, was steamed because she introduced the bill believing that Hickenlooper would sign it if it got to his desk.
“I thought we’d been pretty clear that we had real concerns with the bill,” Hickenlooper said. “I don’t think the people throughout the state, at this moment at least, are there yet.”
But unlike most policy decisions, capital punishment doesn’t break down party lines — it’s a political question that is, for many, deeply personal. And there’s no poll showing a broad majority on either side of the issue, as there’s been in support of universal background checks and civil unions, policies the cautious governor has backed this year.
That makes the death penalty an awkward issue for Hickenlooper, a personable but shrewdly political executive who values consensus above all.
“I had a couple of sleepless nights just trying to sort through it,” Hickenlooper said. “It’s easy to read in a book about making a decision like this, but when you have to make the decision, you internalize it, you take it more seriously.”
Hickenlooper’s Chief of Staff Roxane White, an ordained minister, strongly opposes the death penalty; so does Jack Finlaw, the governor’s general counsel.
Former Director of Corrections Tom Clements, who was murdered last month, was also outspoken about his belief that state-sponsored executions should be outlawed.
“My cabinet are about half and half,” Hickenlooper said. “Maybe about 60 percent oppose the death penalty, 40 percent support it.
So what does Hickenlooper believe deep down?
He’s still figuring that out.
“When it’s a hard decision like this, in the end I think you make those decisions emotionally,” Hickenlooper said. “But you need a framework of facts and information. So I’m gathering information.
“People’s convictions are often composed or contain the convictions of many family members, close friends, people you admire in life and in history.”
The looming execution is a true test for Hickenlooper’s style of consensus-based leadership that relies heavily on charm; many Democrats who support the governor are urging him to take bold action.
When pressed about the many instances in American history when lawmakers and leaders fought to advance causes — ending slavery, women’s suffrage, civil rights — before there was broad public support behind them, Hickenlooper referenced last year’s movie, “Lincoln,” Steven Spielberg’s rendering of the dramatic political battle to outlaw slavery.
“The president didn’t free the slaves at the beginning of the war,” Hickenlooper said. “That whole movie’s about how it’s in his second term when actually he felt there was sufficient public will, public sentiment that would allow him to do this because it was such a big change; and if he’d done it four years before, I think he believed, it would have been effective.
“It would have taken people’s believe in government and diminished it in some way.”
Hickenlooper hints at vetoes, confirms he’s still seeking reelection
Fresh off a week-long trip to Israel, Hickenlooper also confirmed to FOX31 Denver that he’s not so weighed down by a partisan, polarizing legislative session that he’s suddenly having second thoughts about reelection.
“I have every intention of running,” he said, noting that the Israel trip wasn’t a suddenly scheduled respite for a beleaguered governor.
“We call that a vacation because I haven’t had much vacation in the last couple years, and we didn’t want to confuse people that it was an official trip on behalf of the state of Colorado. It was very constructive. We scheduled it eight months before; it didn’t have anything to do with my mood or feeling downtrodden in any way. It was just the only time that it could work.”
Hickenlooper said he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, toured several religious and historical sites and even met with Israeli businesses about trade and expansion opportunities in Colorado.
In the wide-ranging interview, Hickenlooper also hinted that he may veto several pieces of legislation still working their way through the legislative process, including a measure to expand collective bargaining rights for firefighters, although the governor wouldn’t refer to that proposal or any other directly.
“We said the day I was inaugurated that we weren’t going to impose mandates or uncompensated expenses on the counties or municipalities in Colorado,” Hickenlooper said. “A number of these bills put big burdens on the counties and we said we weren’t going to do that.”
Hickenlooper, a former geologist who’s been criticized by Democrats for favoring the oil and gas industry, also said he would sign legislation tightening reporting requirements on energy companies that cause spills and increasing the fines they pay as a result.
But he hinted he’s likely to veto House Bill 1269, which sought to strip the industry’s representatives from the state panel charged with regulating it and now merely mandates that those representatives disclose their financial interests while serving on the board.
“We’re still working on trying to improve it and get to a place where we can support it,” Hickenlooper said. “If we’re going to get to a place where you’re going to try and change the mission of one of the major regulatory bodies in the state, you probably want to have a longer, more robust, far-reaching process to get people’s input and make sure you hear all the different constituencies.
“But we’re still working about it.”