DENVER–It may not have come across as a profile in courage, but Gov. John Hickenlooper insisted Wednesday that his decision to grant an indefinite reprieve to Death Row inmate Nathan Dunlap wasn’t an act of political cowardice.
In his monthly interview with talk-show host Mike Rosen on KOA-AM, Hickenlooper said he knew he would come under heavy criticism by giving the convicted killer a temporary stay of execution.
“To say it was cowardly–we knew that by going this third route we would get much more political heat, people would be much more angry, and that it was politically the most contentious, controversial thing we could do,” said Hickenlooper. “And we knew that there would be tremendous political heat on it, but we still did it. So I don’t think you could say it was cowardly.”
Several callers blasted the Democratic governor for saving Dunlap, who in 1993 killed four employees at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in Aurora. One caller said the governor “took what I consider a very cowardly route.”
Hickenlooper said he’s heard plenty of criticism since he issued the reprieve May 22. Dunlap had been scheduled to be executed in August.
“Trust me, I’ve heard how many people are angry,” said Hickenlooper. “You are not alone in how upset you are, some of my oldest friends were furious. But now they’re having that discussion.”
The governor cited a host of problems with the death penalty, but said his decision in the Dunlap case boiled down to his belief that the mass murderer suffers from bipolar disorder, which wasn’t diagnosed before his 1996 conviction.
“Nathan Dunlap is clearly bipolar,” said Hickenlooper. “Once they gave him lithium in 2005, suddenly he found remorse. It wasn’t acting.”
Rosen argued that the bipolar defense came as a transparently last-ditch effort by Dunlap’s attorneys in their petition for clemency.
“There are millions of people in the country with bipolar disorder who never come close to doing violence to anybody or killing anybody,” said Rosen. “It was a Hail Mary pass at the last minute by his defense team. Where was this argument years ago? They just came up with it because they ran out of everything else.”
Dunlap showed no remorse after the murders, making infamous statements such as how killing people was “better than sex,” but after he began taking medication in 2005, his personality changed, said Hickenlooper.
“Once he got lithium, he suddenly became a different person, and he wrote letters to the families of victims, demonstrated I think genuine remorse,” said Hickenlooper.
The bipolar defense wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the trial, but Hickenlooper said it might have persuaded jurors to sentence Dunlap to life in prison instead of death.
“I’m not saying he’s criminally insane–what I am saying is that if he was severely bipolar, which I think, the three doctors I talked to all felt that that was highly likely,” said Hickenlooper. “And there were three [jurors] who signed affidavits. three of the jurors who said, ‘If we had known that, that’s a disability, if we had known that, we would have found him guilty, there’s a good chance we wouldn’t have sentenced him to death.’”
A former co-worker of Dunlap’s at Chuck E. Cheese disputed the bipolar diagnosis in a letter to the governor, saying that when she knew him, he never demonstrated mood or personality swings. Dunlap’s attorneys say he was in the throes of his first manic episode when he committed the murders.
“He never had highs and lows, his outbursts weren’t occasional and he was never unpredictable,” said the former co-worker, who asked to remain anonymous. “He was always a vindictive, evil and mean dark person . . . He is a bad person, he always has been and I believe he always will be.”
The governor also repeated his contention that Coloradans need to have a “conversation” about capital punishment. If he had granted clemency, he said there would be no debate, that “it would go away in a week, it would be a non-issue.”
“It was a way of saying, all right, the voters have passed this law and no one’s repealed it. Should we allow that law to stand?” said Hickenlooper. “I’m not taking that law off the books, I’m not trying to diminish all the work that was done by the jury, and the prosecutors and the expert witnesses, that all still stands as the state has this conversation.”