Murderers' Row

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

Little believed they had a strong death-penalty case. Fears had shot three people, not in the heat of the moment, but in cold-blooded executions. Two of his victims had died; the third lived to testify against him. But the fourth step would again trip up the prosecution.

The Fears trial and death-penalty hearing took twelve weeks and involved more than a hundred witnesses; the case also set a number of legal precedents. Prosecutors were used to dealing with testimony about tough childhoods and abusive parents, but the defense went to new extremes to present "any other evidence which in the court's opinion bears on the question of mitigation." They delved into the background of Fears's parents, into his other relationships, into his school record. His attorneys took advantage of the fact that Fears was a handsome young man who didn't look like a cold-blooded killer. On the stand, he begged for his life, saying he'd found religion -- he'd converted to Islam -- and even moving some jurors to tears.

After two hours of deliberations, the jurors returned with a verdict. They'd split over the fourth step, and therefore Fears would not be sentenced to die. In light of the Fears outcome, the death-penalty filings against the Youngs were dropped, and they pleaded to lesser charges.

Denver Chief Deputy District Attorney Bill Ritter hadn't been part of the prosecution team, but he talked to several jurors after the Fears verdict. He came away with several observations that would affect his strategy when the Colorado Legislature again began talking about changing the death-penalty statute. One was the jurors' resentment over how long their lives had been disrupted. Another was that many of the younger jurors seemed swayed by the defense's emotional arguments rather than by the law.

Years later, Mike Little would look back at the Fears death-penalty hearing and see it as the moment when defense strategies began to swamp jurors and, later, judges with what prosecutors would deride as the "abuse excuse."


The next man to be sentenced to death was already behind bars when he confessed to the murder that landed him on death row. In April 1988, Ronald White had been sentenced to life in prison after he pleaded guilty to the murders of a Pueblo hotel clerk and a bicycle salesman. Then 28 years old, White would have been eligible for parole in 2046.

In prison, however, White complained that he was regularly assaulted by Cañon City guards. So he came up with a plan to get away from his tormentors: He confessed that in 1987, he'd shot his roommate, Paul Vosika, in the head, decapitated him, then chopped off his hands to prevent identification.

A self-professed serial killer, White -- who'd later claim he "couldn't begin to count" the number of people he'd murdered -- hoped that by pleading guilty, he'd be allowed to transfer to a Wyoming prison. Instead, in May 1991, he was sentenced to join Gary Davis and Frank Rodriguez on Colorado's death row.

In November 1993, an opinion poll showed that 80 percent of Colorado's voters endorsed capital punishment. In the almost twenty years since Colorado had voted to reinstate the death penalty, there had been more than 3,500 murders in the state. Although fifteen killers had been sentenced to death, one had died while waiting on death row, nine had had their convictions or sentences overturned on appeal, one had had his sentence commuted to life in prison, and one had been executed for a murder in Texas. Of the 38 states in which the death penalty was legal, only four -- New Hampshire, New Mexico, Wyoming and South Dakota, all states with much smaller populations -- had fewer killers on death row.

But those same Coloradans who favored the death penalty philosophically often balked when they were sitting in the jury deliberation room. It took a particularly heinous crime to move all twelve jurors through that fourth step.


On December 14, 1993, the employees of Aurora's Chuck E Cheese restaurant had locked the doors for the night when nineteen-year-old Nathan Dunlap emerged from the restroom where he'd been hiding. Fired a few months before, he wanted revenge.

First he shot nineteen-year-old Sylvia Crowell, a student at Metro State College. Next he walked up to seventeen-year-old Ben Grant, a junior at Smoky Hill High School, and shot him in the face. Colleen O'Connor, a seventeen-year-old senior at Eaglecrest High School, saw her killer coming and got down on her knees to plead for her life; Dunlap shot her through the top of her head.

He then went into the kitchen, where he shot nineteen-year-old Bobby Stephens in the face. The bullet knocked Stephens to the floor but didn't kill him. After Dunlap walked on, Stephens got up and went for help.

Proceeding to the office, Dunlap ordered assistant manager Marge Kohlberg to open the safe. Kohlberg, the mother of two daughters, had just moved into her "dream house" with her husband; she'd been working at the restaurant for only two weeks and had had nothing to do with Dunlap's firing. But after she did as ordered, Dunlap shot her in the ear. When she fell to the floor, he shot her through the other ear. He then emptied her purse, filled it with about $1,500 from the safe and left the restaurant.

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