From a podium 20 miles and 20 years removed from one of the most cold-blooded mass murders in Colorado history, Governor John Hickenlooper mouthed his respect for Dunlap’s victims, Colorado law, the Colorado criminal justice system and judges …and then arrogantly ignored them all.
Justice and the law demanded that Nathan Dunlap be put to death during the week of August 18-24 for lying in wait in the bathroom of the Chuck E. Cheese restaurant until it closed on December 14, 1993, and then shooting five innocent and unsuspecting people in the head, killing four of them. That was the conclusion of 12 Colorado jurors chosen by Dunlap’s expert Colorado attorneys after a lengthy, contested and vigorous review of the evidence and Colorado law in a public trial in 1996. Following that painstakingly slow and detailed trial and sentencing hearing, there was 17 years of post-conviction appellate review by Colorado judges appointed by Colorado governors that further proved the fairness and justness of the process afforded murderer Dunlap.
Faced with a clear choice to either uphold the rule of law and allow justice to be carried out, or to endorse his post-election commitment to repealing the death penalty by granting clemency, Governor John Hickenlooper exhibited now well-known traits: weakness and indecision. He shrugged. Hickenlooper protected Dunlap and became this mass murderer’s guardian angel by invoking a “reprieve,” a power not used by a Colorado Governor since the 19th century. By invoking this ancient authority, Hickenlooper has substituted his own misgivings and queasiness about the death penalty for the determination of a jury and 17 years of efforts by the criminal justice system in our state.
Colorado Governor Hickenlooper’s stated justifications for overruling Colorado prosecutors, jurors, legislators, judges and laws include that “reasonable people disagree on the benefits” of the death penalty, a minority of states in the U.S. and many foreign countries do not have the death penalty and “most major world religions do not support the death penalty.”
That’s right. Our Colorado Governor disregarded and overruled Colorado laws and Colorado values in exchange for those of other states, foreign countries and the world religions he presumably ignores on every other social issue. This type of hypocritical and arrogant usurpation of our laws by an executive consumed by his own beliefs on what the law “should be” is usually reserved for Washington, D.C., not Colorado. Our criminal justice system must be free of the whimsical political leanings of whoever sits behind the Governor’s desk in Denver.
The damage caused by Mr. Hickenlooper’s inexplicable refusal to make a decision about Dunlap’s warranted death extends far beyond the cruel blow to the victims’ families who have trusted our criminal justice system and have waited patiently for two decades for a promised justice and closure that once again seems in an indeterminate limbo. The real damage is to our criminal justice system and the rule of law.
The death penalty has been the law in Colorado for nearly every year dating to before we became a state — more than 100 years. In each of the past two legislative sessions, bills to repeal the death penalty have been defeated by bipartisan votes. Whenever Coloradans have had the opportunity to vote for the death penalty, they have. The death penalty is the law in Colorado, whether Governor Hickenlooper agrees with it or not.
The Governor’s decision to ignore the will of the people about the death penalty by granting a term-limited pardon calls into question whether a future Colorado governor could grant a “reprieve” to all those individuals facing sentencing for violations of any other law about whose benefits “reasonable people disagree,” perhaps even the recently party-line passed gun control laws. Under the Hickenlooper rule of indecision on matters of disagreement, the answer is yes. But such a decision by that future Governor would be as arrogant, selfish and wrong as is Hickenlooper’s decision to punt on the issue of a mass murderer’s rightful execution.
To the political left, Mr. Hickenlooper says “see, nobody was put to death on my watch. I spoke ill of the death penalty and wouldn’t let it be imposed, jury and courts be damned.” To the majority of Coloradans supporting the death penalty, he says “I respect your views and your laws, that’s why I discouraged its repeal and did not grant clemency. I just refused to enforce your laws.” Courage or cowardice? Principle or politics? Respect for the law or contempt for it?
What use are laws and legislatures and prosecutors and judges, if all can be rejected and overridden by one person? Colorado deserves better. Colorado deserves leadership on important and difficult issues. We elect a Governor to make tough decisions, not avoid them. Hickenlooper’s indecision is a rewrite of the famous Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken,” into “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — stood there, for the rest of my life — unable to decide which one to take.”
Not far from us, an Arizona jury will struggle with the decision to impose death on a woman who murdered one person, her boyfriend. National polls show that 70 percent of Americans want the death penalty for the Boston Marathon bomber who killed only three. One hundred percent of Nathan Dunlap’s jurors think he deserves death for murdering four and still our Governor wrings his hands, deliberates, shrugs and says, “I’m not sure.”
In an interview after his conviction, Dunlap calmly described 17-year-old Colleen O’Conner shaking her head back and forth, mouthing the words “no, no,” begging for her life. Dunlap described how that “pissed him off” because Colleen had the audacity to try to make him like her and feel guilty about what he was doing. Then he shot her through the top of her head and moved on to his next victim. That is not bipolar. That is evil.
“Does it bother you that they are dead, Nathan?” a media interviewer asked him in 1996. “No,” Dunlap responded.
In 1997, then-Governor Roy Romer denied clemency to killer Gary Davis stating “there has to be a consequence for a crime this heinous.” Davis murdered three less people than Dunlap.
Calling Nathan Dunlap by his inmate number not his name is a feeble and hollow gesture by the Governor. The names we — and Governor John Hickenlooper — should remember are 19-year-old Sylvia Crowell, 17-year-old Ben Grant, 17-year-old Colleen O’Connor, 50-year-old Margaret Kohlberg — a mother of two, and Bobby Stevens. Those names have clearly been forgotten.
It was and is time — finally — for justice to be imposed on a man who said after his conviction, “I wanted them dead and they’re dead. Come kill me then, if you think, if you think you can take my life, come do it. I’m gonna take yours before you take mine.”
Thanks only to Mr. Hickenlooper’s weakness and indecision Dunlap may outlive us all. And while victims 20 years removed from a loss that forever feels 20 seconds old cry new tears and wrestle with new angers caused entirely by our current Governor, a cold-blooded mass murderer sleeps with a smile put on his face by the same man.
This column first appeared in the Glendale Cherry Creek Chronicle here