Nathan Dunlap: CNN Spotlights a Death Sentence in Limbo

It's been a long, long road from the 1993 murder of four people at a Chuck E. Cheese in Aurora to Colorado's lethal injection chamber, and convicted killer Nathan Dunlap isn't there yet, thanks to the temporary reprieve from execution granted by Governor John Hickenlooper last year. That controversial move has made this fall's gubernatorial election a kind of referendum on the state's seldom-used death penalty -- and has brought renewed national scrutiny of the Dunlap case, including "Eye For an Eye," a thoughtful episode of CNN's Death Row Stories series that airs this Sunday night.

See also: John Hickenlooper: Would He Commute Nathan Dunlap's Death Penalty If He Loses?

The episode manages to use the messy, excruciatingly protracted Dunlap case as a launching point for a much more wide-ranging discussion about the death penalty -- the whole justice-versus-vengeance question; whether Dunlap's belatedly diagnosed mental illness should have any bearing on his fate, given the undeniable, premeditated viciousness of the crime; and, of course, the sticky issue of race. Is it really just coincidence that the three men currently on Colorado's death row all happen to be African Americans who attended Overland High School and were prosecuted in Arapahoe County?

Several of the usual talking heads weigh in. Eighteenth Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler assures viewers that Dunlap "deserves death," whatever the "Life for Killers crowd" might say. Defense attorney David Lane quips that folks in Arapahoe County (i.e., Brauchler) are "madly in love with the death penalty." State representative Rhonda Fields, whose son was killed by the other two occupants of the state's death row, gets a lot of face time as well and seems to have mesmerized the producers by managing to be in favor of both gun control and the death penalty. Journalists David Sirota and Natasha Gardner fill in some holes. Susan Sarandon narrates, and Robert Redford is prominently listed as an executive producer.

Governor Hickenlooper appears only sparingly, offering bland explanations for his decision to put Dunlap's execution on hold, a move that seems to have caused more uproar than clemency would have. "There's no question this was coldblooded murder," he says. "You feel a physical repulsion and a hatred, it's almost visceral.... But that's not where justice comes from."

Missing from the gov's interview are the juicy bits that caused a local stir when leaked a few weeks ago by attorney/talk-show host Craig Silverman and Complete Colorado: the part where Hickenlooper told CNN that he could grant clemency to Dunlap if he loses the election.

Since the ostensible theme of this piece has to do with the politics of the death penalty, you have to wonder why CNN chose not to air its own scoop. Much of the rest of the program, while generally well-reported and even-handed, covers ground already familiar to anyone who's followed the Dunlap case. The most potent interviews turn out to be those with victims' families, who are somewhat more conflicted about the "eye for an eye" concept than you might expect.

Bobby Stephens, the only employee to survive Dunlap's shooting spree despite a bullet in the jaw, is unequivocal in his belief that it's high time for Dunlap to meet his maker. But Jodie McNally-Damore, whose daughter, Colleen O'Connor, was shot in the head by Dunlap after she pleaded for her life, has a different take -- and tellingly, she gets the last word in CNN's presentation.

"I think that he deserves to stay exactly in the hole that he's in," McNally-Damore says, "and let him suffer and suffer and think about what he did. Let him rot."

Here's an excerpt from the program, which airs locally at 7 p.m. on Sunday, September 7.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast