John Hickenlooper gives Nathan Dunlap reprieve from death but doesn't grant clemency

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News leaked about Hickenlooper's decision in the hour prior to his scheduled 2 p.m. press conference (which got underway a few minutes late), apparently thanks to District Attorney George Brauchler, a death penalty advocate who felt that Dunlap deserved the ultimate discipline. He confirmed to 7News and other news agencies that Hickenlooper had chosen to grant a reprieve -- a decision with which he wholeheartedly disagrees.

Copies of the executive order confirming Brauchler's statements were circulated in the moments before Hickenlooper walked to the podium in the west foyer of the State Capitol.

When Hickenlooper stepped forward, he declined to mention Dunlap by name in announcing his course of action, choosing instead to refer to him as "offender number 89148," under the rationale that he'd gotten enough notoriety already for his terrible acts.

Hickenlooper 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."

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."

At the same time, Hickenlooper said he didn't feel comfortable taking "the larger step" of granting full clemency. He viewed the reprieve as a way to show "respect to all the jurors and judges and prosecutors...respect to the rule of law in the State of Colorado."

After his opening statement, Hickenlooper took a number of questions. He characterized the reaction of family members of those killed by Dunlap as "largely disappointment... The majority of the families really did feel they'd get closure from an execution."

In the end, though, he took another path, based on the bigger picture.

"Every study we've seen demonstrates that there's no deterrence by having a death penalty in a state," he said. "It doesn't make you safer. And there's ample examples of innocent people in other states being sentenced to death. The fallibility is clear, the inequity.... These facts, and I could go on for a half an hour, have been widely disseminated, but people aren't aware of these facts.... It's not just random that so many states have repealed the death penalty, and so many countries have done away with the death penalty."

Also against capital punishment, he said, was Tom Clements, the Department of Corrections head assassinated earlier this year, presumably by recent parolee Evan Ebel. "He was a pretty hardass, tough head of corrections," Hickenlooper stressed. "But he was adamantly against the death penalty. He and his wife, Lisa, were against the death penalty, and Lisa's still against the death penalty, even after what happened to her husband."

Clements's argument against capital punishment at a meeting a year or so ago "affected everybody in the room," Hickenlooper recalled.

The next governor of Colorado can choose to lift Dunlap's reprieve, Hickenlooper pointed out -- so he didn't take the decision away from him or her. Still, he doubts that his successor will reverse course.

"I think it's more likely, and this is my bias, having spent this amount of time immersed in the issue, that as the facts get out, more and more people in the State of Colorado will say, 'This isn't the best solution....' Maybe the better solution would be to get people off the streets and give them life without parole and stop talking about it."

With that, one person in the gallery began to applaud.

Continue reading for Governor Hickenlooper's formal statement, a response from attorneys/Dunlap supporters Madeline Cohen and Philip Cherner, and the complete executive order, followed by our earlier coverage.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts