Nathan Dunlap: Mom of victim Ben Grant latest to call for killer to die

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Original post, 12:50 p.m. May 8: 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.

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.


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


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.

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.
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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