Judge sets Nathan Dunlap execution date for August; Hickenlooper to meet with all sides

Posted on: 1:47 pm, May 1, 2013, by and , updated on: 10:05pm, May 2, 2013

DENVER — Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant killer Nathan Dunlap is set to be executed the week of August 18-24, Arapahoe District Judge William Sylvester ruled Wednesday afternoon.

Now the only thing that can save the killer’s life is clemency from Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Hickenlooper and his staff are scheduled to meet with Dunlap’s defense team on Friday, FOX31 Denver was first to report Wednesday; they’re also scheduled to meet separately with District Attorney George Brauchler and prosecutors on the Dunlap case and families of Dunlap’s victims in the coming days.

“We represent a very remorseful client and it’s a tragedy that this thing is moving forward,” said Phil Cherner, Dunlap’s attorney, after the execution date was set.

Dunlap, who was convicted of murdering four people inside an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese back in 1994, is one of three people sitting on Colorado’s death row.

With the date now set, Hickenlooper is suddenly facing increasing pressure to make a decision about whether or not to move forward with the execution — pressure from people on both sides of the case and from within his own cabinet.

“It took 17 years of scrutiny by every court in this land to see that this was done appropriately,” Brauchler told reporters after Wednesday’s hearing. “And the idea that a governor who ran on support of the death penalty may choose to inject himself in a process that he does not have to, to take this away from the voters, to take this away from the jurors who sat on this case — that is an injustice.”

In an exclusive interview last week, Hickenlooper told FOX31 that he’s conflicted about what to do on the looming execution and on the issue of the death penalty itself.

“I think it’s the toughest thing I’ve had to deal with,” Hickenlooper told FOX31 Denver.

Hickenlooper’s Chief of Staff Roxane White and General Counsel Jack Finlaw, who are leading the administration on the Dunlap case, both personally oppose the death penalty.

Former Corrections Chief Tom Clements, who was murdered in March by a paroled felon, Evan Ebel, also spoke passionately against the death penalty during a cabinet retreat last year, Hickenlooper told FOX31 Denver.

“My cabinet are about half and half,” Hickenlooper said. “Maybe about 60 percent oppose the death penalty, 40 percent support it.”

Defense attorney Dan Recht believes Hickenlooper may choose to commute the sentence.

“He is ambivalent about it now, and he’s being pushed by several people to commute the death penalty of Nathan Dunlap,” Recht said. “He may well do that.”

Last month, legislation to repeal the death penalty outright faltered at the Capitol after Hickenlooper told Democrats that he would consider vetoing it because he’s unsure the public would support it.

In 2011, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat, enacted a moratorium on state executions, unwilling to participate in what he called a “failed system” but stopping short of repealing the state’s death penalty outright.

Hickenlooper could be considering a similar path forward, although sources indicate that the Oregon model isn’t exactly applicable to Colorado because of differences in the death penalty statute.

Dunlap was just 19 years old when he walked into the Aurora restaurant where he had been fired and killed four of his former co-workers. The victims were restaurant manager Margaret Kohlberg, 50, Sylvia Crowell, 19, Ben Grant and Colleen O’Connor, both 17.

He also shot 20-year-old Bobby Stephens, who survived.

Dunlap left the restaurant with about $1,500 in cash and game tokens.