Moral Low Ground

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Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper Grants Execution Reprieve to ‘Chuck E. Cheese Killer’ Nathan Dunlap

Citing the “imperfect and inherently inequitable” nature of capital punishment, Colorado’s governor has halted the execution of a man convicted of murdering four people at an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in 1993.

The Denver Post reports that Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, took the highly unusual step of issuing a temporary reprieve in the case of Nathan Dunlap, indicating that the 39-year-old convicted quadruple murderer will likely be spared execution for as long as the current governor remains in office.

Dunlap was convicted of first-degree murder, attempted murder and other charges for shooting five people in a Chuck E. Cheese pizzeria in Aurora after being fired from the restaurant in December 1993. He was convicted and sentenced to death three years later. He was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on August 18.

In issuing the executive order to spare Dunlap, Gov. Hickenlooper made it clear that his decision was about capital punishment itself and not about this particular case.

“It is a legitimate question whether we as a state should be taking lives,” the order states. “Because the question is about the use of the death penalty itself, and not about [Dunlap], I have opted to grant a reprieve and not clemency in this case.”

“Colorado’s system of capital punishment is imperfect and inherently inequitable,” Hickenlooper said after announcing his executive order. “Such a level of punishment really does demand perfection.”

Hickenlooper acknowledged that informing relatives of Dunlap’s victims of his decision was “difficult.” Some of them, and many in Colorado and beyond, are incensed by the governor’s decision to spare the ‘Chuck E. Cheese Killer’ from the death chamber.

“The knife that’s been in my back… was just twisted by the governor,” Bob Cromwell, whose daughter Sylvia was one of Dunlap’s four victims, told the Post.

“He should die,” former Aurora police officer Dan Jones, who was the first to arrive at the scene of the grisly murders, said of Dunlap. “What he did was horrific, and now 20 years later… the governor passes the buck,” Jones told KUSA.

Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler slammed the governor’s “inaction,” calling Dunlap’s death sentence a “no-brainer.”

“This is not justice,” Brauchler bristled, adding that “one person in this goes to bed with a smile on his face tonight, and that is Nathan Dunlap.”

Colorado Attorney General John Suthers issued a statement accusing Hickenlooper of being “uncomfortable confronting the perpetrators of evil in our society.”

But based on his comments, Hickenlooper appears to view capital punishment as a form of evil too.

“It’s hard to defend the death penalty,” the governor asserted, pointing to studies that show capital punishment is not a deterrent and is often applied inconsistently. Other studies have proven capital punishment to be racially biased and far costlier than imprisoning convicts for life without parole.

Such concerns influenced the recent decision to abolish capital punishment in Maryland, the 18th US state to do so. In 2011, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber declared a moratorium on capital punishment, which he called “compromised and inequitable” and a “perversion of justice.”

Dunlap’s lawyers had asked Hickenlooper to commute their client’s death sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The governor refused, which means that whoever succeeds him could overturn his executive order and send Dunlap to the death chamber. Hickenlooper is running for reelection this year, and his decision is sure to become a lightning rod issue during the campaign.

For many pro-death penalty Coloradans, Hickenlooper’s decision to spare Dunlap is incomprehensible.

“This is a cold-blooded killer. He planned it and he executed it and now, 19 years later, he still hasn’t paid for it. That’s just wrong,” Sandi Rogers, whose 17-year-old son, Ben Gant, was one of Dunlap’s victims, told the Post.

“The thought of [Dunlap] being granted clemency and being put in the general population where he can hang out with his homies scares me to death. It scares me to my core,” Rogers added.

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