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Nathan Dunlap clemency bid: "No principled reason" to execute quadruple murderer

The decision by attorneys for accused Aurora theater shooter James Holmes to enter a not guilty by reason of insanity plea seems motivated mainly by an effort to avoid the death penalty.

Those representing Nathan Dunlap, convicted of killing four people at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in 1993, are taking a different tack. They're asking Governor John Hickenlooper to grant clemency based on factors such as mental illness, his troubled upbringing and the "broken" death penalty system.

There's no denying the brutality of Dunlap's crime, which is vividly depicted in "The Politics of Killing," a 2008 article in 5280 hooked to the possibility of Bill Ritter, Hickenlooper's predecessor as governor, deciding to go the clemency route -- which he didn't.

The crime scene.
The crime scene.

Four employees at the restaurant -- Margaret Kohlberg, fifty, Sylvia Crowell, nineteen, and Ben Grant and Colleen O'Conner, both seventeen -- were shot to death by Dunlap, while a fifth, twenty-year-old Bobby Stephens, was grievously wounded but survived. Here's an excerpt from the 5280 piece, based on Stephens's account:

Sylvia didn't even hear the intruder come up behind her. Silently, he raised the .25-caliber semiautomatic pistol to her left ear and squeezed.

Bang.

As she fell, he looked away. He couldn't stomach the sight of gore and blood. He moved quickly to where Ben was vacuuming.

Bang.

The bullet entered near Ben's eye, lodging in his brain as he fell to the ground.

Colleen saw him coming. He was a boy with a gun; he had too-big brown eyes above hollowed cheeks and a mouth that twisted in a half-smile. Kneeling in front of him, she begged for her life, raising her arms, her fists clenched, as he held a gun just 18 inches from her head.

"Don't shoot," she cried. "I won't tell."

"I have to," the shooter said as he pulled the trigger again.

Bang.

It didn't take cops long to track down Dunlap, then nineteen, who'd eaten dinner at the restaurant earlier in the evening. He was finally convicted in 1996 and sentenced to die for his crimes.

He's lingered on death row since then, with plenty of legal machinations surrounding him -- but earlier this month, an execution date was set for the week of August 18-24. That was followed by a petition for executive clemency, which offers a plethora of reasons why Hickenlooper should grant it. The entire document is below, but here's a breakdown.

The request begins with criticisms of the death penalty and the way it's utilized in this country. Bishop James Gonia of the Lutheran Evangelical Church believes that "executions harm society by mirroring and reinforcing existing injustice. The death

penalty distracts us from our work toward a just society. It deforms our response to

violence at the individual, familial, institutional, and systemic levels. It perpetuates cycles of violence." Likewise, Nita Gonzales and Gene Lucero of the Colorado Latino forum maintain that "race and class should not be the consistent determinants of who gets executed."

Continue for more about Nathan Dunlap's clemency petition.

Jean Dubofsky.
Jean Dubofsky.

Then, former Colorado Supreme Court Justice Jean Dubofsky, representing twelve other ex-judges, gets specific about Dunlap. She writes:

"Assuming that the death penalty may sometimes be appropriate, there is no principled reason for it to be applied in the circumstances of this case. Nathan Dunlap's mental illness is being controlled with appropriate medication. He should be punished for his crimes, not by being put to death, but by spending the rest of his life in prison."

From there, the document offers a statement of regret from Dunlap. In his words, "I'm sorry for the pain and suffering I've caused the victims' families and friends, Bobby Stephens and his family and friends, and my family and friends. I'm sorry for the hate that I've created. I'm sorry for the loss of life. The loss of friends, family and loved ones. I'm just sorry for everything that happened on December 14, 1993, and the ripple effect that followed.... I know saying, writing and feeling sorry isn't enough and I wish there was something more that I could do to relieve any pain."

At that point, clemency petition authors Madeline S. Cohen and Philip A. Cherner lay out the basics of their argument:

There are many reasons to spare Nathan Dunlap, and there is no principled reason to execute him. He has been safely housed in prison for nearly twenty years, and he poses no danger to others. His execution will have no deterrent effect, and his case involves the same problems of racial bias, arbitrariness, and geographical disparity that have led to calls for the repeal or reform of Colorado's death penalty.

Nathan Dunlap's childhood was characterized by extreme physical, emotional and sexual abuse. The jury that sentenced him to death knew nothing of his serious mental illness, or the role of that illness in his commission of the murders. Nathan Dunlap -- then 19 years old -- was in the grip of his first full-blown manic phase when he committed his terrible crime.

The mental-health arguments take up a large portion of the document. Dunlap is said to come from a family that's struggled against such issues for five generations, with his mother, Carol Dunlap, suffering from bipolar disorder that terrified her children.

Continue for more about Nathan Dunlap's clemency petition.

Another Dunlap booking photo.
Another Dunlap booking photo.

Nathan, too, exhibited signs of mental illness, the authors say, but his condition wasn't properly diagnosed. One reason: "Carol Dunlap actively interfered with the rehabilitative process during...out-of-home placements. For example, she terminated the family's counseling sessions, apparently to avoid inquiry into the 'family secrets' of physical and sexual abuse."

Here's a passage about the latter, with additional references to Nathan's sister, Adinea, and his father Jerry, described as a onetime professional football player:

Growing up while coping with a parent's mental illness is challenging in its own right. For young Nathan the challenges didn't stop there. Both Carol and Jerry Dunlap were physically violent towards the children, especially Adinea and Nathan. The kids would receive severe beatings with belts, fists, and wooden rods for such infractions as leaving soapy water in the sink after washing dishes or taking doughnuts from the breakfast area at a motel where the family was staying. It is no wonder that Adinea called her home a "living hell."

According to the document, Dunlap was in a manic phase when he committed the murders. But after his arrest, his mental issues weren't treated, and this remained the case until 2006, the petition maintains. Since he began receiving lithium, however, he's said to have stabilized and is no longer a threat to those around him.

The petition also says that three of Dunlap's original jurors now say that had they known he was mentally ill, they wouldn't have voted for his execution.

Also up for scrutiny by the authors is the death penalty itself, which they argue is disproportionately imposed on people with a number of characteristics that Dunlap happens to share:

The mitigating circumstances of Mr. Dunlap's case, particularly the facts that his sentencing jury was not told about his mental illness, and that he poses no danger to others in prison, warrant clemency. Mr. Dunlap's case also warrants clemency because it reflects all of the problems that plague Colorado's broken death-penalty system.

Nathan Dunlap committed a terrible crime, and he should spend the rest of his life in prison. But like all others on Colorado's death row, he is a young African-American man who committed murder in Arapahoe County. Imposition of the death penalty in this State turns on those arbitrary and biased factors of race,youth, and geography, and not the facts of a particular crime.

And then there are the costs associated with the death penalty, which one source estimates "at least 25 times as much per year as a non-death-penalty case," the petition allows.

And how much has Dunlap's death sentence cost Colorado taxpayers thus far? The authors cite estimates of "more than $18 million over the past 19.5 years," adding, "Most

of those millions could have been saved if the Arapahoe County District Attorney's Office had accepted Mr. Dunlap's 1994 offer to plead guilty in exchange for four consecutive sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole."

Will these arguments persuade Hickenlooper? On one hand, he has talked plenty about keeping dangerous weapons out of the hands of the mentally ill in the context of gun control. On the other, he'll be making his decision against the backdrop of the Holmes prosecution, in which twelve people were killed and seventy were injured -- even more carnage than Dunlap created on a December in 1993.

Here's the clemency petition:

Nathan Dunlap Petition for Executive Clemency

More from our Aurora Theater Shooting archive: "James Holmes, accused Aurora theater shooter, plans to plead not guilty by reason of insanity."