EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been corrected to make clear that the bill is not retroactive and therefore will not affect the governor’s current reprieve of Nathan Dunlap.
DENVER — Democrats killed a bill Monday that would have limited the governor’s future ability to grant unlimited reprieves to death-row inmates.
State Rep. Libby Szabo (R-Arvada)’s bill would have placed a 90-day limit on reprieves of execution and stipulated that they could be granted only in the case of administrative difficulties.
“Due process and justice are equally important. The victims and their families deserve justice not indecision,” said Szabo in a statement. “John Hickenlooper was elected to make tough decisions, not to pass the buck to future governors. My bill would have set a guard on the reprieve process to ensure a governor could not do this again.”
The bill came in response to Gov. John Hickenlooper’s granting Dunlap a “temporary reprieve” in May. The governor cited reservations about capital punishment and his belief that Dunlap suffered from undiagnosed bipolar disorder at the time of the shooting.
Dunlap was convicted in 1996 of murdering four employees at the Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in Aurora.
While the Democratic governor called the reprieve temporary, he said he was unlikely to reconsider his decision during his remaining tenure in office.
Assigned to the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee—also known as the “kill committee”—the legislation was defeated 6-3 on a party-line vote.
Democrats argued that the bill was probably unconstitutional, given that the state constitution gives the governor broad authority to commute sentences of prisoners and grant reprieves.
“I believe that this is an unconstitutional restraint on the governor’s power, which I believe to be absolute in that area,” said state Rep. Jeanne Labuda (D-Denver). “I don’t think this would pass constitutional muster.”
Testifying against the bill were representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, the League of Women Voters, and the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar.
“The criminal defense bar is generally opposed to statutes and legislation that are in response to one newsworthy event,” said Bridget Klauber, lobbyist for the criminal-defense bar. “Death penalty appeals take a long time because we are talking about taking someone’s life, and so there’s probably good reason that as a community and as a state we’re very deliberate about that process.”
Szabo countered that the legislature frequently introduces bills based on current events and high-profile cases.
“What I’ve found what this body does best is follow the coined phrase, ‘Necessity is the mother of invention,’” said Szabo. “We see things that are wrong in the system and we try to make them right.”
Appearing in support of the bill was Bobby Stephens, who was shot and wounded by Dunlap during the 1993 Chuck E. Cheese massacre.
“I just want everyone to know the true impact of the governor’s reprieve coming from a victim’s eye view . . . This case has drawn out over 20 years for me, and as a victim, there have been many hardships, many different things I’ve had to overcome,” said Stephens,
“The process itself is really drawn out, but when it comes to the tail end, decisions need to be made, and the sentencing needs to be carried out,” he said.
Sentence to death 18 years ago, Dunlap has outlived the man who prosecuted him. Former Arapahoe County District Attorney Jim Peters died last week at 62 after a battle with cancer.