DENVER — Gov. John Hickenlooper’s decision to place on hold mass-murderer Nathan Dunlap’s execution sets up a stark choice for Colorado voters in 2014.
Re-elect Hickenlooper, and Dunlap lives. Elect his Republican opponent, and Dunlap dies.
Like it or not, the Democratic governor bound his own fate Wednesday to that of the notorious Chuck E. Cheese killer. The decision to grant a “temporary reprieve” takes the case out of the judicial system and places it squarely on the desk of Colorado’s next governor and, by extension, the voters.
Given that Colorado voters have twice thrown their support behind the death penalty, the last time in 1974, analysts say Hickenlooper’s glide path to reelection is suddenly looking like less of a sure thing.
“It’s his first serious decision which runs counter to public opinion,” said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli. “It really cements the fact that he’s definitely on the left now. And it definitely opens it up for a credible candidate from the Republican Party.”
Indeed, the decision to grant an open-ended reprieve–rather than full clemency–comes across as politically calculated, even though it’s hard to see how the governor benefits politically. Colorado Democrats have failed so far failed to rally behind his decision, while Republicans have denounced him.
“He’s doing this for political reasons that I can’t comprehend,” said Dennis O’Connor, father of Colleen O’Connor, one of the four restaurant employees killed by Dunlap in 1993. “This should never have been politicized in any way, shape or form. He never should have been involved in this . . . And then when he got into it, he found such a deceitful way of getting out of it.”
In an interview Thursday with Michael Brown on KHOW, O’Connor said he met with the governor in May and believed even then that he would find a way to save Dunlap’s life. He pointed to anti-death penalty Twitter messages sent in April by chief-of-staff Roxane White.
“I was pretty sure after we met with the governor in early May, I was pretty sure that this was all being politicized by his chief of staff after she made the comment,” said O’Connor. “She tweeted that it was barbaric, the death penalty was barbaric.”
Hickenlooper is known for his efforts to reach compromise, but analysts say his attempt to split the difference on the Dunlap execution comes across as wishy-washy.
“He did it in a way that sounded indecisive,” said Ciruli. “If you’re truly against the death penalty, then you commute the sentence and take your lumps. He compounded it by doing it in a fashion that seemed indecisive.”
Political analyst Eric Sondermann asks in a Facebook post if the decision “risks coming across as too cute by half?”
“The ability to split the difference and find common ground is often a political gift,” said Sondermann. “But I suggest that it was an illusory pursuit here and that all parties (including the Governor) would have been better served with a firm, clear, up-or-down decision on clemency.”
The governor’s decision to take the middle road has done nothing to deter Republicans. The day after Hickenlooper granted the reprieve, two high-profile Republicans, former Rep. Tom Tancredo and Secretary of State Scott Gessler, indicated they would run against him in 2014.
The Colorado Republican Party launched a YouTube ad Thursday juxtaposing images of Dunlap with Hickenlooper. The ad plays an interview with Dunlap in which he says, “If you think you can take my life. Come do it. I’m going to take yours before you take mine.”
Colorado Republican Party chairman Ryan Call said in a statement that Hickenlooper “has denied justice for the innocent victims who were killed in cold-blood.”
“In Colorado, the death penalty is used sparingly, and only for the most heinous crimes,” said Call. “It is clear that Hickenlooper’s cowardly decision was not about ensuring justice is done, but was all about his inability to make the difficult decisions required of a governor.”
While Hickenlooper’s reprieve places the Dunlap execution in play for the 2014 campaign, it’s still unclear whether voters will regard the death penalty as a pivotal issue. The Democratic governor’s best-case scenario is that other events overtake the Dunlap reprieve before the election.
Said Ciruli, “My bottom line question is, ‘Is the death penalty a make-or-break issue in the governor’s race?”