Murderers' Row

Until two years ago, Colorado juries weighed whether men deserved to die. Now judges decide their fate.

In her opening, Brake had promised that she'd call many witnesses -- including Harlan's parents, siblings, former teachers and friends -- to testify about his good side as a loving father, son, brother and friend. Belt Harlan, a Denver police detective, had done his duty when he'd turned in his son after another son showed him Robert's bloody clothes and a gun. But it was as a father that Belt Harlan addressed the jury.

Killing his son wouldn't help "bring that lady back," he pleaded. "If you ask me if I'm begging for my son's life, yes. If you ask me if you should kill him, no. If this comes about, I'll accept it as God's will. But I'm begging you not to kill him."

On July 1, the jury returned with its verdict: Robert Harlan would be the first man in four years to be sent to death row.

Pat Tuthill carried this picture of her daughter at the trial of Peyton's murderer, Donta Page.
Pat Tuthill carried this picture of her daughter at the trial of Peyton's murderer, Donta Page.

Details

Read more Westword coverage of Colorado's death penalty in Penalty Zone

Harlan showed no reaction other than to pour himself a glass of water. "I think the only thing he has remorse for is that he was caught," Donna Sutherby, Rhonda Maloney's mother, told a reporter. "The only thing I'm sorry for is that he will not die the same way my daughter did."

Although it had been almost thirty years since Colorado had executed a killer, DA Grant told the press that he was confident Harlan's death sentence would be carried out. And he contended that the death penalty deterred a certain type of killer.

"I believe that folks commit murder for a number of reasons, and some of them commit them in a calculated, planned fashion," the DA said. "And for those people, the operation of the death-penalty statute can and will be a deterrent. And if it stops one person -- just one person -- from being killed in the state of Colorado, it's absolutely appropriate."


"If not now, when? If not this, what? If not him, who?"

Arapahoe County prosecutor Eva Wilson strolled near the defense table where Nathan Dunlap sat, staring. She was trying to convince a jury of El Paso County citizens that Dunlap should die.

Dunlap's attorney, Forrest "Boogie" Lewis, had persuaded Arapahoe County District Judge John Leopold that extensive pretrial publicity could prevent his client from receiving a fair trial. For that matter, Lewis himself had been on the receiving end of death threats. But the change of venue didn't make a difference for Dunlap. On February 26, 1996, after a five-week trial, the jury had returned with four guilty verdicts for first-degree murder after deliberation, a verdict for each of his victims.

During the penalty phase, the prosecution presented 28 possible aggravating factors. The murders had been committed because Dunlap wanted revenge for being fired, wanted to rob his former employer, had a desire for fame. And they were also committed, the prosecution argued, because Dunlap, who was black, was motivated by racial hatred for his white victims.

The defense attorneys countered that their client had grown up in a dysfunctional family. Dunlap, Lewis said, was a "human wreck" whose upbringing had left him unable to distinguish between right and wrong.

Lewis told the jury he understood the community's outrage. "If you choose to kill my client on the facts of this case, I will respect that," he said. "Nathan Dunlap chose to kill. He should be held accountable. He has been held accountable. But you have a choice now, too. Choose life. Not violence. Not killing. But life."

During her rebuttal, Wilson noted that "there's one person who isn't grieving for the victims." She turned to face Dunlap, who didn't look up. "There's one person who hasn't shed a tear or shown remorse. We ask you to come up with a verdict that remembers the victims. Remember the bloom of life. Remember the youth. Remember the promise. Remember the innocence.

"Remember how no mercy was shown."

The jurors remembered, and they unanimously agreed that the prosecution had proved every one of its 28 aggravating factors. After only five hours of deliberations, the jurors returned with four death sentences, which Leopold read as Dunlap sat with his chin in his hand, showing no reaction.


A month after Dunlap received his death sentences, the statute calling for a three-judge panel took effect. There were now five men on death row.

Three of them were there for raping, torturing and killing women, although only one had specifically targeted his victim. Another prisoner was there because he'd made a habit of killing men, two of whom had died quickly. The fifth was on death row because he'd methodically killed four people in cold blood, motivated by nothing more than a desire for revenge and notoriety.

They lived in five seven-foot-by-twelve-foot cells, each of which contained a steel sink, steel table, steel shelf and, anchored to the floor, a steel stool and bed. The bed held a thin mattress, sheets, a pillow and blankets. Each cell also had a black-and-white television that received only local channels and educational programs. The door to the cell was solid steel, except for a one-foot-square window and a slot for passing plates in and out.

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