Nathan Dunlap has been on Colorado’s death row since 1996 for a mass murder he committed on the night of December 14, 1993. Murdered were Chuck E. Cheese Restaurant employees Colleen O’Connor (17); Benjamin Grant (17) Sylvia Crowell (19) and night manager Marge Kohlberg (50). Dunlap was also convicted of the attempted murder of another employee, Bobby Stephens. The motive for this crime was revenge and robbery. Dunlap was a former employee of the restaurant who had been fired, and he carried a grudge.
The Colorado Supreme Court has upheld Dunlap’s conviction and sentence on three separate appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear the case. There was never any doubt of Dunlap’s guilt. The trial focused on the sentence and the jury decided on death. Dunlap had an extensive prior record including several robberies.
Dunlap was scheduled to be executed in 2013 but Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, who could have signed the death warrant or commuted Dunlap’s sentence to life without parole, instead granted a “temporary reprieve.” This can be changed by Hickenlooper at any time, or by any future governor. It was an odd thing for Hickenlooper to do and he has suffered politically for it. Coloradans support the death penalty by a 2:1 margin.
There are two stories currently in the press about Hickenlooper’s squishy decision: Death Row Reprieve Riles Juror and Colorado’s pro-death penalty voters could make Hickenlooper pay.
The current Republican candidate to challenge Hickenlooper in November, Bob Beauprez, has indicated that if he is elected he will sign the death warrant allowing Dunlap’s execution to proceed. Hickenlooper accuses Beauprez of using Nathan Dunlap’s life as a wedge issue in the election, and has said that if he loses the election he will commute Dunlap’s sentence during the period between the election and the swearing in of the new governor. I guess that also means that if he wins he will commute Dunlap’s sentence. Thus, if he means what he’s saying now Dunlap will never be executed.
Hickenlooper campaigned for governor in 2010 stating that he was in favor of the death penalty. When he granted the temporary reprieve he called the decision personal, moral and thoughtful. He said, “Obviously this has weighed heavily on me. … Part of the question was around this case, but also around the death penalty. … Is it just and moral?” He never explained what he meant by “part of the question was around this case…” Did he see something the Colorado Supreme Court missed? If so, he should say what that is. Anyway, he couldn’t make up his mind. Now he has, he’s against the death penalty in all cases.
Besides his inability to figure out his own position on whether it’s moral to keep mass murderers alive and locked up in a 70-square-foot space for 23 hours a day for up to 60 or more years, Hickenlooper exhibits the same psychological disconnect that keeps people from thinking clearly about the death penalty. That is, Hickenlooper reserves his sympathy for the miserable person who has brought death to innocent life and by that awful act has also wreaked destruction in the lives of those knew and loved the ones who were killed. Two of Dunlap’s victims were just 17 years old, another was 19 and the fourth was a 50 year old women. The young ones were robbed of their long future life, their families left devastated, and the 50-year old woman was robbed of some of the best years of her life that were yet to come and the future retirement she was no doubt beginning to look forward to. This in addition to the awful pain and loss to those who would have shared it with her.
If one makes these people the focus of their concern, their sympathy, and above all their empathy, the decision of one’s stance on the death penalty should be easy. If on the other hand, one does as John Hickenlooper has done and wipes these people and their suffering out of his mind, only then is it hard to decide what to do about the Nathan Dunlap’s of the world.