Hickenlooper grants reprieve to death row inmate Nathan Dunlap

DENVER — Gov. John Hickenlooper decided Wednesday to grant a reprieve to convicted killer Nathan Dunlap, who was set to be executed in August for killing four people at a Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant.

The temporary reprieve comes in the form of an executive order signed by Hickenlooper. It will delay Dunalp’s execution indefinitely.

The reprieve can only be lifted with another executive order, and Hickenlooper said at a 2 p.m. news conference it’s highly unlikely he will revisit the issue again.  That means it would be up to his successor to decide to stay the execution or allow it to resume.

“This weighed on me heavily for a year,” Hickenlooper said in explaining his decision to reporters.  He spoke slowly and deliberately.

“I could not find the justice in making” a decision to allow Dunlap to die, he said.

Hickenlooper said he believes capital punishment is inequitable and added, “If the state has to take responsibility of executing someone, the system must be flawless.” He also noted the number of states in the US, and countries around the world, that have decided to outlaw capital punishment.

In an interview with FOX31 Denver after the press conference, Hickenlooper acknowledged being lobbied by death penalty opponents the world over — he got a phone call from Archbishop Desmond Tutu earlier this year — and being convinced that the death penalty is bad policy.

“If it’s not a deterrent, and if in many cases it’s not providing closure, and at the cost of a fortune to the state, why are we doing it?” Hickenlooper said.

This from a governor who, back in March, blocked legislation that sought to repeal Colorado’s death penalty outright. Hickenlooper, ever focused on process, said at the time that state had yet to weigh in on the issue.

In his Executive Order, he states that he believes his decision will continue the statewide discussion on the issue.

“This wasn’t the right thing to do, politically,” Hickenlooper said. “We’ve made a lot of people mad. But I tried to get all the information I could and immerse myself and really try to come to a place where this is the right decision, not just for me, but for Colorado.

“And I feel very centered in that. Long-term, I think this is the right decision for Colorado.”

On Wednesday, state Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, released a short statement giving just a hint of her emotional distress.

Colorado’s two other death row inmates, Robert Ray and Sir Mario Owens, are there for murdering her son, Javad Marshall Fields, and his girlfriend, Vivian Wolfe, back in 2005. It’s unclear how Hickenlooper’s reprieve for Dunlap will affect their sentences, never mind the case of Aurora theater gunman James Holmes, for whom prosecutors are seeking a death sentence.

“I respect the governor’s decision-making authority to grant a reprieve,” Fields said. “However, as a victim of a horrible crime and on behalf of other victims and their families, I am saddened by the governor’s decision yesterday.”

Before the news conference, Hickenlooper met with families of Dunlap’s victims. He admitted that they were “disappointed” with his decision.

Immediately after Hickenlooper’s decision was made public, both sides of the capital punishment debate gave their opinions.

House Minority Leader Mark Waller released a statement calling Hickenlooper’s decision disappointing.

“It’s a failure in leadership that is illustrative of the Governor’s unwillingness to make the difficult decisions Coloradans expect him to make,” Waller said.

“The Governor’s executive order strips victims and their families of the justice they deserve. For twenty years, victims’ families have worked within our legal system to see justice delivered. The Governor’s reprieve does a disservice not only to the victims’ families, but also to the jurors who convicted Dunlap and to the people of Colorado.”

State Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, who is considering challenging Hickenlooper in 2014, also attended the governor’s press conference and criticized the decision afterward.

“This was the worst possible decision,” Brophy said. “t was completely gutless, another example of a lack of leadership from Gov. Hickenlooper. He puts this off to somebody else to solve this problem.”

Dunlap’s attorney’s sent a statement supporting Hickenlooper’s decision saying: “We agree with Governor Hickenlooper’s well-reasoned decision to grant Nathan Dunlap a reprieve and indefinitely stay his execution. There has been widespread and diverse support from hundreds of people and organizations in Colorado who support permanently commuting Nathan Dunlap’s sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole.”

The Archbishop of Denver also gave a statement of support and went a step further saying now is the moment for Colorado to repeal the death penalty.

“When will Americans open their eyes to recognize that violence only begets violence? We who stood for the life of Nathan Dunlap should work together to end violence undertaken in our state, in the womb, and in our hearts,” Rev. Samuel J. Aquila wrote in a statement.

Dunlap, who murdered four people inside an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in 1994, made a formal plea for clemency earlier this month after an Arapahoe County judge scheduled an execution date the week of August 18-24.

Hickenlooper has met with prosecutors, Dunlap’s defense team and with relatives of the killer’s victims, who are split on whether they want the governor to go forward with the execution.

Meanwhile, Republicans like Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler and state Sen. Greg Brophy, who may decide to run against Hickenlooper next year, have publicly pressured the governor not to intervene and to let the execution go forward.

“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,” Brauchler told reporters earlier this month when the execution date was set.

For Hickenlooper, a politician known for seeking consensus, the Dunlap dilemma was exceedingly difficult: there is no “third way”, no path through the middle — Dunlap either lives or he dies and the decision lies with the governor.

“It’s the toughest thing I’ve had to deal with,” a still-conflicted Hickenlooper told FOX31 Denver in April.