Death penalty poll: Hickenlooper's decision to let Nathan Dunlap live loses nearly 3-1

There was an uproar immediately after Governor John Hickenlooper granted a temporary reprieve to Nathan Dunlap, the condemned killer who murdered four people and badly injured a fifth in 1993 -- and not just from critics like Colorado Attorney General John Suthers or Tom Tancredo, who said he's running for governor in part because of Hick's decision. A new poll (see it below) shows a large majority of Coloradans disapprove -- and suggests that the issue could loom large in Hickenlooper's 2014 reelection bid.

As we reported last month, Hickenlooper declined to mention Dunlap by name while announcing the reprieve, instead referring to him as "offender number 89148," under the rationale that he'd gotten enough notoriety already for his terrible acts, which took place at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant.

He subsequently thanked the victims of the murderous attack for sharing their stories with him and stressed that the decision had "weighed heavily on me for, well, it's been over a year now." But given his statutory responsibilities, "inaction wasn't an option."

Hickenlooper at the news conference announcing his decision in the Dunlap case.
Hickenlooper at the news conference announcing his decision in the Dunlap case.

Among the questions Hickenlooper asked himself in considering what he would do included mulling whether the death penalty was "just or moral" and "a benefit to the world." The more he studied the topic, the more he concluded that the system was imperfect -- and given the seriousness of the subject, "it really needs to be perfect."

He stressed that he had no doubt about "the heinous nature of the crimes committed," but he was troubled by "the inequity of the system.

"I am deeply respectful of the suffering and loss that occurs," he said. "But it's hard to see...the benefit of the capital punishment system" -- one that takes fifteen to twenty years to wind through the court system and "extends the emotional hardship for those families... "

In the end, he realized that he couldn't in good conscience give the go-ahead to "kill someone who is no risk to society."

This explanation thrilled death-penalty opponents, but not most potential voters according to a newly released survey from Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. Indeed, the numbers aren't even close.

Overall support for the death penalty was 69-24 percent, with disapproval of the Dunlap decision in a similar range, 67-27 percent.

Tom Tancredo.
Tom Tancredo.

Just as problematic for Hickenlooper: A whopping 74 percent of respondents said that the death penalty will be either "very important" or "somewhat important" to them as they choose which candidate to back for governor. And although more men than women favored capital punishment, both genders overwhelmingly endorsed its use: Men were pro-death penalty by a 75-21 percent margin; women checked in at 63-27 percent.

Even the majority of Hickenlooper's fellow Democrats would keep the death penalty on the books, albeit by a more modest number, 49-41 percent. But independents (73-21 percent) are almost as favorably disposed to the ultimate penalty as are Republicans (87-11 percent).

These numbers are good news for gubernatorial hopeful Tancredo, who the pollsters say is only a whisper behind Hickenlooper right now, with 41 percent support as opposed to 42 percent. Other potential opponents do almost as well, including Secretary of State Scott Gessler (42-40 percent) and state senator Greg Brophy (43-37 percent).

To put it mildly, these early digits will shift and shift again many times before November 2014. But the continuing courtroom drama surrounding the efforts of 18th Judicial District prosecutors to execute James Holmes for the Aurora theater killings last July are sure to keep the topic in the news throughout that span. As such, a main focus of the governor's race is likely to be life and death.

Here's the Quinnipiac University poll, followed by Hickenlooper's executive order in regard to Nathan Dunlap.

Quinnipiac University Death Penalty Poll

Nathan Dunlap Executive Order

More from our Follow That Story archive: "John Hickenlooper gives Nathan Dunlap reprieve from death but doesn't grant clemency."

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