Governor John Hickenlooper's decision to grant a temporary reprieve to Nathan Dunlap, who killed four people and seriously wounded a fifth in an attack on a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant circa 1993, has been cheered in some quarters, but jeered in others. Tom Tancredo decided to run for governor due in part to frustration over Hick's actions, and both Colorado Attorney General John Suthers and Jefferson County District Attorney Pete Weir have released passionate attacks on his choice.
First up, here's what Suthers has to say on the subject:
"It's been my observation over many years that the extraordinary powers we give the president and our state governors is the one place in the criminal justice system where personal philosophy can trump the rule of law. And make no mistake about it -- that is exactly what has happened in the case of People v. Nathan Dunlap. This is a horrible crime in which four wholly-innocent people were brutally murdered. The defendant was eligible for the death penalty under Colorado law. The district attorney believed the defendant deserved the death penalty. A jury of twelve citizens of Colorado determined that he deserved the death penalty. And a plethora of appellate courts have upheld the jury's decision. But Governor Hickenlooper simply cannot cope with the task of carrying out the execution of Nathan Dunlap or exercising his constitutional mandate.Ben Grant was among Dunlap's victims in the 1993 Chuck E. Cheese massacre.
"Executive authority to modify criminal punishment is part of our constitutional system, and I respect that. However, the citizens of Colorado deserve honesty and the victims deserve finality. I believe the governor's decision does not stem from anything but his personal discomfort about the death penalty. I also believe that the governor should have been much more up front with the voters when he ran for office if he couldn't carry out the death penalty.
"I have an excellent working relationship with the governor and I respect him very much. Yet it's been apparent to me that issues of crime and punishment are not his strength. John Hickenlooper is an optimist. He has proven to be uncomfortable confronting the perpetrators of evil in our society. I saw this when I discussed last year's juvenile direct-file bill with him. He had trouble comprehending that a 16 or 17-year-old is capable of brutal acts deserves adult punishment. I saw it in his naïve views about the role of administrative segregation in our prisons. And I've heard it in my discussions with him about the death penalty. The governor is certainly entitled to these views, but granting a reprieve simply means that his successor will have to make the tough choice that he cannot.
"Fifty-year-old Margaret Kohlberg, 19-year-old Sylvia Crowell, 17-year-old Ben Grant, and 17-year-old Colleen O'Connor all died at Nathan Dunlap's hand. Bobby Stevens was shot and left for dead. They were the victims in this case and Mr. Dunlap made sure that their voices could not be heard.
"The governor, by refusing to make any hard decisions today -- whether in carrying out Dunlap's sentence or conclusively granting clemency -- has only guaranteed suffering and delayed justice for the victims' loved ones for years to come."
Tough stuff -- and Jeffco DA Weir's response is no more complimentary toward Hickenlooper.
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"Earlier this week, Governor Hickenlooper granted a reprieve to Nathan Dunlap. In 1993, Dunlap walked into a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in Aurora and shot five people in cold blood. Dunlap killed three teenagers and a mother of two.
"Despite being afforded due process through years of litigation at taxpayer expense, the Governor granted Dunlap a stay of execution mere weeks before his scheduled execution. The Governor is entitled to commute a sentence to remedy an injustice, but a reprieve in this case is simply a complete failure to make a decision. Rather than provide any finality, the Governor's Executive Order explains that people will, 'respect and understand the unique burden of this decision.' It is, however, the exact same decision made by the many people involved in this case since 1993 -- prosecutors, jurors, and judges have all wrestled with the same issues before they rendered a decision. In fact, seventeen years of reviews by numerous courts and judges confirmed, beyond any doubt, that Dunlap received a fair trial. Additionally, the death penalty was imposed by the unanimous decision of 12 members of the community who were able to make a decision, after hearing all of the facts and Dunlap's mitigation, in concluding that death was the only appropriate penalty.
"The commutation process is not intended for the Governor to simply impose his own personal beliefs. A reprieve or commutation is intended to allow for the correction of grievous injustices, a failure of due process, or some question regarding the defendant's guilt. None of those factors apply to Dunlap. The Governor has, in effect, temporarily repealed the death penalty for just one person. In so doing, Governor Hickenlooper has also created needless and significant uncertainty in other cases where the death penalty remains a factor. His decision has contributed significantly to the ongoing trauma to the victims' family members. I am struck by their profound reactions to the Governor's failure to make to a decision.
"The reprieve ignores the horrific nature of the murders committed by Mr. Dunlap, the jury's verdicts, the due process afforded to Dunlap, the role of the Legislature, and the consequences for everyone involved except, perhaps, for Mr. Dunlap -- who deserved exactly what the jury decided many, many years ago."
More from our News archive: "John Hickenlooper gives Nathan Dunlap reprieve from death but doesn't grant clemency."