DENVER–This week was supposed to be different for Dennis O’Connor.
This was supposed to be the week in which he would drive the nearly four hours from Montrose to Canon City to witness the execution of a man convicted in 1996 of committing four murders.
This was supposed to be the week that O’Connor would finally be able to gain something. Justice. Closure. At the very least, an end to his 20-year courtroom vigil.
Instead, the week of Aug. 18-24 is just another seven days in the life of a father who’s still waiting to see what happens to his daughter’s killer. And right now, there’s no end in sight.
“I was going to Canon City, absolutely. I definitely wanted to be there,” said O’Connor. “Now we’re in limbo again. There’s no outcome coming now, there’s no closure, and we may never get it.”
On May 22, Gov. John Hickenlooper granted an indefinite stay of execution to Nathan Dunlap, who had been sentenced to death for the 1993 murders of four employees at the Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in Aurora.
The four people killed were Margaret Kohlberg, 50; Sylvia Crowell, 19; Ben Grant, 17, and 17-year-old Colleen O’Connor.
Dennis O’Connor was there when Arapahoe District Court Judge William Sylvester set Dunlap’s execution for the week of Aug. 18-24.
“For me, when I was sitting in that courtroom and the judge set the execution date, that was the first time that I knew this was going to be finalized,” said O’Connor. “Then to turn around and have him [Hickenlooper] do that was treacherous to me.”
The relatives of Dunlap’s victims know what it’s like to wait. They sat through the trial, the sentencing, and then 17 years of appeals before the execution date was set on May 1. That was hard, said O’Connor, but in some ways, this is worse.
“I think it’s worse now because then, you had something to look forward to,” said O’Connor. “Now, there’s nothing.”
Hickenlooper said in a statement that the reprieve had nothing to do with Dunlap and everything to do with capital punishment. The death penalty, he said, is arbitrary in that some people convicted of first-degree murder are put to death and some are not. He also said that the death penalty does not deter crime.
Hickenlooper said the death penalty has been abolished in all but “a handful of developed countries,” and that “most major religions” oppose the death penalty. He pointed out that Catholic Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila of the Denver Archdiocese opposed the execution.
None of this was convincing to O’Connor, particularly the governor’s use of the Catholic Church to back up his decision.
“I’m Irish-Catholic. He’s trying to throw this decision back to the Archdiocese,” said O’Connor. “I told him, ‘You’re trying to pin this on the Catholic Archdiocese? Well, the Catholic Archdiocese is also against abortion, and you’re for that. Don’t try to lay this on the Catholic Church.’”
He said the exchange took place during a meeting between the governor and about 40 victims’ relatives shortly before Hickenlooper granted the reprieve. Even then, O’Connor said he could tell there was no point in arguing.
“He just sat there and lied to us,” said O’Connor. “He already had his mind made up.”
What the reprieve did was give O’Connor a cause. Dunlap’s reprieve depends on Hickenlooper remaining in office, and the governor faces reelection in 2014.
“I’m not into politics, but I’m going to do everything I can to make sure this guy isn’t reelected, that’s for damn sure,” said O’Connor. “He could have put it [the death penalty] up for a vote, but wouldn’t even do that. He just wants to skirt the law.”
In the meantime, O’Connor can only look forward to more weeks like this one, another week in which there is no sentence for the man who killed his daughter.
“I would have been down there days beforehand, making sure I had all my clearances so I could watch this a**hole be put to death,” said O’Connor. “And now there’s nothing. I’m back to this limbo crap.”