BREAKING: Hickenlooper Grants Temporary Reprieve for Dunlap

UPDATE: #3: Attorney General John Suthers fires off a highly political response to today's decision:

The defendant was eligible for the death penalty under Colorado law. The district attorney believed the defendant deserved the death penalty. A jury of twelve citizens of Colorado determined that he deserved the death penalty. And a plethora of appellate courts have upheld the jury’s decision. But Governor Hickenlooper simply cannot cope with the task of carrying out the execution of Nathan Dunlap or exercising his constitutional mandate.

Executive authority to modify criminal punishment is part of our constitutional system, and I respect that. However, the citizens of Colorado deserve honesty and the victims deserve finality. I believe the governor’s decision does not stem from anything but his personal discomfort about the death penalty. I also believe that the governor should have been much more up front with the voters when he ran for office if he couldn’t carry out the death penalty.

I have an excellent working relationship with the governor and I respect him very much. Yet it’s been apparent to me that issues of crime and punishment are not his strength. John Hickenlooper is an optimist. He has proven to be uncomfortable confronting the perpetrators of evil in our society. I saw this when I discussed last year’s juvenile direct-file bill with him. He had trouble comprehending that a 16 or 17-year-old is capable of brutal acts deserves adult punishment. I saw it in his naïve views about the role of administrative segregation in our prisons. And I’ve heard it in my discussions with him about the death penalty. The governor is certainly entitled to these views, but granting a reprieve simply means that his successor will have to make the tough choice that he cannot.

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UPDATE #2: Press release announcing today's executive order after the jump.

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UPDATE: 9NEWS' Blair Schiff:

Under a reprieve, Dunlap could conceivably be executed some day. The reprieve will stay in place until Hickenlooper or another governor lifts it.

Arguably the most difficult decision of his political career, Hickenlooper's decision may earn him blowback as prosecutors are currently seeking the death penalty against James Holmes for the mass murder at an Aurora movie theater.

The death toll in the Dunlap case is not as high as the 2012 Aurora theater shooting, but it shares similarities. Dunlap was convicted in 1996 of killing four employees at a Denver-area Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in 1993. The jury sentenced him to die. His last guaranteed appeal was rejected this year. His execution was scheduled for August 2013.

FOX 31:

The reprieve can only be lifted with another executive order, and Hickenlooper said at a 2 p.m. news conference it’s highly unlikely he will revisit the issue again.  That means it would be up to his successor to decide to stay the execution or allow it to resume.

“This weighed on me heavily for a year,” Hickenlooper said in explaining his decision to reporters.  He spoke slowly and deliberately.

“I could not find the justice in making” a decision to allow Dunlap to die, he said.

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We'll update shortly with coverage and the full text of the statement–word breaking now that Gov. John Hickenlooper has granted a temporary reprieve to death-row inmate Nathan Dunlap,  citing questions about the application of the death penalty generally–while acknowledging the "horrific" nature of Dunlap's crime. 

Gov. Hickenlooper grants temporary reprieve of death sentence

Gov. John Hickenlooper signed an Executive Order today that grants Nathan J. Dunlap, also known as Offender No. 89148, a temporary reprieve from his death sentence.

The Colorado Constitution provides for one final review by the governor before the State executes another human being. This check is one that, from its Common Law origins, embeds in the governor the authority to grant a reprieve. Not taking action in this case was not an option.

“I have taken this responsibility seriously,” Hickenlooper says in the Executive Order. “As Governor, I must either direct state employees to execute a human being, or I must exercise my constitutional authority to stop an execution. Both paths require an affirmative decision by me, and the prospect of either decision has been daunting. It has forced me to think of the issue in a personal way because it is on my conscience the decision will weigh. I am confident that most Coloradans – no matter what their views on the death penalty may be – will respect and understand the unique burden of this decision.”

The governor met in recent weeks with prosecutors, clergy, victims and their families, law enforcement, defense attorneys, and countless other people to discuss this case and the death penalty. In granting the reprieve, the governor used the Executive Order to explain a number of issues, including:

Colorado’s imperfect capital punishment system 

“If the State of Colorado is going to undertake the responsibility of executing a human being, the system must operate flawlessly. Colorado’s system for capital punishment is not flawless. A recent study co-authored by several law professors showed that under Colorado’s capital sentencing system, death is not handed down fairly. Many defendants are eligible for capital punishment but almost none are actually sentenced to death. The inmates currently on death row have committed heinous crimes, but so have many others who are serving mandatory life sentences. … As one former Colorado judge said to us, ‘[The death penalty] is simply the result of happenstance, the district attorney’s choice, the jurisdiction in which the case is filed, perhaps the race or economic circumstance of the defendant.’ Indeed, ‘Death, in its finality, differs more from life imprisonment than a 100-year prison term differs from one of only a year or two,’ U.S. Supreme Court Justices Stewart, Powell, and Stevens wrote in a 1976 decision. Thus, they said, ‘there is a corresponding difference in the need for reliability.’”

Issues surrounding the statutorily required drugs for lethal injection 

“… as a result of the infrequent use and application of the death penalty in Colorado, the State is not immediately equipped to carry out a death sentence. Recent restrictions imposed by pharmaceutical companies and the Food and Drug Administration make procuring these drugs challenging. We must ensure that individuals facing the death penalty are afforded certain guaranteed rights of due process before a state proceeds with an execution.”

National and international trend toward abolition of the death penalty 

“Maryland, Connecticut, New Jersey, Illinois and New Mexico recently repealed the death penalty. There are now 18 states without the death penalty and 7 of the states with the death penalty (including Colorado) have not carried out an execution in at least 10 years. There has been a moratorium on executions in California for more than 6 years due to concerns regarding the constitutionality of their execution procedures. And the death penalty is effectively suspended in Oregon, where the governor has imposed a moratorium on the death penalty for the duration of his service as governor. Internationally, the United States is one of only a handful of developed countries that still uses the death penalty as a form of punishment. Approximately two-thirds of countries worldwide have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice, largely due to concerns regarding human rights violations. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun said, ‘The death penalty experiment has failed.’”

“My decision to grant a reprieve to Offender No. 89148 is not out of compassion or sympathy for him or any other inmate sentenced to death,” Hickenlooper says in the Executive Order. “The crimes are horrendous and the pain and suffering inflicted are indescribable. I have enormous respect for the jurors who deliberated over Offender No. 89148’s case, the decision they rendered, and the amount of reflection they demonstrated in discharging their civic duty.”

The order says more than 15 years have passed since that jury convened, “and we now have the benefit of information that exposes an inequitable system.”

“It is a legitimate question whether we as a state should be taking lives,” the order says. “Because the question is about the use of the death penalty itself, and not about Offender No. 89148, I have opted to grant a reprieve and not clemency in this case.”

The Executive Order signed today will remain in effect until modified or rescinded by future Executive Order of the Governor. Offender No. 89148, meanwhile, will remain in administrative segregation.

35 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. davebarnes says:

    Our Governor does not make decisions based upon whether it helps/hurts his re-election chances.

    This is just a Wow!

  2. Theo says:

    Temporary?

    That seems to guarantee the issue stays around, with Nathan Dunlap's death penalty a campaign issue.  In every election.

    • Gilpin Guy says:

      Maybe it's a good thing to have a discussion about what's really Pro-Life in our state.  Once you get past the vile bile, it could be a chance at some honest communication about a complex societal subject.  I don't think that Dems. need to shy away from this issue at all.

  3. Gilpin Guy says:

    I have to give him credit for doing what he thinks is the right thing to do even if it burns some political bridges.  Fee the same way about Morse.  Nice to see these Democrats act out their convictions and not just be in it to get reelected (cough cough Udall).

  4. MADCO says:

    I got nothing.

    Sure- there's the ez snark:

    Yeah, but can Dunlap get a concealed carry permit? Can he vote? Is he legally in the country?  and so on.

    But the real deal is the real question is about how to be pro-life, and how to be fake pro-life. Arbitrarily pro-life.

    I get the difference between the unborn and the convicted felon.  But in the case of the former – I do not believe they are "persons" yet. In the case of the latter, the conviction is…shaded ..by cultural norms of the era and the region, which is far from the just standard I would prefer be applied to state sanctioned murder.

  5. Craig says:

    This guy never, never makes a decision.  He essentially blocked discussion of a death penalty repeal by the legislature and also blocked it going on the ballot.  Now he just temporizes?  Are you kidding.  What a complete panty waist.  Either he commutes all three sentences or he doesn't.  That's his choice.  He just like every other politician.  Doesn't care about anything except getting re-elected.  And frankly, I'm not sure he hasn't miscalculated on that matter as well.  I'm not convinced that given the events of the last 20 years and the cost to execute these folks it's worth it any more. And I was once a big death penalty supporter.  I think there's lots of people like me who are just done with it.  People don't like a guy who can't make a decision and essentially turfs it off to the next person in the office.  This is a non-decision by a person who simply can't make decisions of any import.  As we used to say, a total wimp.

    • Gilpin Guy says:

      Thanks for the perspective Craig.  I had forgotten that he basically killed off the Death Penalty repeal legislation by Claire Levy.  He doesn't have to live with the guy being executed on his watch but doesn't want to send the issue to the legislature or the people to see how they feel about another 20-40 years of incarceration for a conviected murderer.

    • BlueCat says:

      I see your point but I do think, all things considered, this whole thing deserves further consideration so I'll take it, whether it  represents a profile in courage or not.

    • gertie97 says:

      Good point, Craig. He's tried to split the baby and so now both sides will be mad at him. Dunlap's fate will continue to fester. On one hand I dread the obvious GOP commercial  that Hickenlooper is too chicken to execute a mass murderer so if voters elect a Republican governor, Dunlap will die. On the other it doesn't hurt my feelings to know Dunlap will continue to sweat whether he'll get the needle or not.

      As for me, pieces of shit like Dunlap aren't worth all the money it takes to kill them. Instead of paying appellate lawyers (on both sides) to argue the issue for 20-plus years, toss him into Supermax or as close a model of that the state has, and throw away the key.

       

    • Duke Cox says:

      People don't like a guy who can't make a decision.

      Not a fair assessment, Craig. Hick has made plenty of decisions regarding lots of things…oil and gas benefits for his buddies immediately come to my mind (of course).

      I just don't think the "can't make a decision" attack has legs.

    • Diogenesdemar says:

      First of all — Craig, I for one couldn't possibly agree with you any more!  This is a too typical non-decision for our Fracker-in-Chief.

       

      Secondly, I found AG Suthers press release today interesting on a number of levels:

       

      ATTORNEY GENERAL SUTHERS STATEMENT ON NATHAN DUNLAP CLEMENCY

      DENVER—Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper today issued a reprieve to Nathan Dunlap for the duration of the Hickenlooper administration. Dunlap was sentenced to die by lethal injection for the 1993 “Chuck E Cheese” murders of Margaret Kohlberg, Sylvia Crowell, Colleen O’Connor and Ben Grant. Dunlap will now serve a sentence of life without parole.

      Attorney General John Suthers issued the following statement in response:

      “It’s been my observation over many years that the extraordinary powers we give the president and our state governors is the one place in the criminal justice system where personal philosophy can trump the rule of law. And make no mistake about it — that is exactly what has happened in the case of People v. Nathan Dunlap. This is a horrible crime in which four wholly-innocent people were brutally murdered. The defendant was eligible for the death penalty under Colorado law. The district attorney believed the defendant deserved the death penalty. A jury of twelve citizens of Colorado determined that he deserved the death penalty. And a plethora of appellate courts have upheld the jury’s decision. But Governor Hickenlooper simply cannot cope with the task of carrying out the execution of Nathan Dunlap or exercising his constitutional mandate.

      Executive authority to modify criminal punishment is part of our constitutional system, and I respect that. However, the citizens of Colorado deserve honesty and the victims deserve finality. I believe the governor’s decision does not stem from anything but his personal discomfort about the death penalty. I also believe that the governor should have been much more up front with the voters when he ran for office if he couldn’t carry out the death penalty.

      I have an excellent working relationship with the governor and I respect him very much. Yet it’s been apparent to me that issues of crime and punishment are not his strength. John Hickenlooper is an optimist. He has proven to be uncomfortable confronting the perpetrators of evil in our society. I saw this when I discussed last year’s juvenile direct-file bill with him. He had trouble comprehending that a 16 or 17-year-old is capable of brutal acts deserves adult punishment. I saw it in his naïve views about the role of administrative segregation in our prisons. And I’ve heard it in my discussions with him about the death penalty. The governor is certainly entitled to these views, but granting a reprieve simply means that his successor will have to make the tough choice that he cannot.

      Fifty-year-old Margaret Kohlberg, 19-year-old Sylvia Crowell, 17-year-old Ben Grant, and 17-year-old Colleen O’Connor all died at Nathan Dunlap’s hand. Bobby Stevens was shot and left for dead. They were the victims in this case and Mr. Dunlap made sure that their voices could not be heard. 

      The governor, by refusing to make any hard decisions today — whether in carrying out Dunlap’s sentence or conclusively granting clemency — has only guaranteed suffering and delayed justice for the victims’ loved ones for years to come.

       

      Maybe ArapaGOP has found his Republican candidate for Governor??????

       

      • MADCO says:

        Arapagop is pro-life, so s/he couldn't suport the death penalty.

      • Craig says:

        I agree with Suthers and he says it so much better than I do.  Don't agree with him on much these days, but finality for the victims family is crucial, no matter what he decides.  But for some reason, our Governor can't seem to make a decision.  Great job for him.

  6. Gray in Mountains says:

    Hick has ensured that capital punishment will be an issue in every legislative election in '14.

  7. Craig says:

    Sorry Pols, but I don't believe that the response from Suthers was "highly political."  I don't think there's anything political about calling someone who can't make a decision.  It's not like this hasn't happened before with this individual.  And, I agree with Suthers that finality, one way or another, is crucial for families.  I thought Suthers was very kind.  Said he respected the Governor.  Stated that he disagreed with the Governor's position, admitted the right of the Governor to make the decision.  Frankly, if our Governor were Ken Cuchinelli I'd guess you'd get a political decision.  I just think you are wrong to defend this guy.  If he doesn't want to make decisions, tough decisions, he should get out of the kitchen.

    • Aristotle says:

      "I don't think there's anything political about calling someone who can't make a decision.'

      Well, aside from the fact that things are very polarized and Suthers is a 'pub.

      Sorry, but even if Suthers is absolutely speaking the truth (and to be sure, I am not questioning that he is), it's a political maneuver nonetheless. Perhaps one the GOP couldn't afford not making, given Hick's popularity.

  8. Albert J. Nock says:

    IF Hick were against all State sponsored death such as unjust wars, cop trigger finger, etc. then I would understand.

  9. exlurker19 says:

    One small practical note, the state was having trouble finding the drugs for the execution.  They're not manufactured here and the countries that do make them were opposed to selling them to us–the American heathens.  I believe even Georgia (the state in the US not in the former Soviet Republic) didn't want to share.

     

    That aside, I applaud Governor Hickenlooper.  Nathan Dunlap has been in solitary confinement for 19 or so years, and I don't want to let him off the hook so lightly as to die. 

  10. Gray in Mountains says:

    I read the entire Executive Order as I am sure Suthers did. Hick's decision makes much more sense to me after that reading and seems more decisive. Fladen may well like it because it is rather like "dancing on a pin". Seems like something a group taking a philosophy or ethics course might reach. Voters won't read it though it is not lengthy and therefore it will be easy for the Rs to attack and can't be easily answered in a 30 second spot

  11. DaftPunk says:

    Hick would have had more courage to suspend the Colorado death penalty generally and indefinitely.  Sir Mario deserves it no less than Dunlop, but so do many others serving life terms.  If it's unfair for one, it's unfair for all, and making that point is a bit more decisive, even if it is left open to further political events.

  12. Gray in Mountains says:

    the EO almost sounds like an admission that he should not have interfered in the leg process re capital punishment

  13. BlueCat says:

    This is what I love about Colorado. Even though I'm not a death penalty fan myself, many Colorado Dems will continue to shock the likes of ArapGoof by failing to live up to the right's stereotype of what all Dems think, do and don't do as well as shocking him by not automatically supporting whatever a Dem pol says or does. Sometimes some of us will actually find something to respect or agree with coming from someone on the other side.

    The righties' canned one size fits all received wisdom on the subject of  Dems/progressives/liberals just doesn't prepare them for understanding a state like Colorado. Maybe that's as much of a problem for them as the wackos that make it through their primaries.

  14. ArapaGOP says:

    Yesterday was a day that will live in infamy. After restricting the rights of Coloradans to defend themselves, Hickenlooper proved he doesn't have the guts to uphold the law and protect them.

    You liberals have wrecked this state. It's going to take a long time to bring it back, but at least now the voters have seen what one party Democrat rule means.

    • ClubTwitty says:

      Guppy, you won't because you never answer just post and scurry, but lay out how executing a prisoner better 'protects' Coloradans.  Come on.  Show your work.  Don't be your normal cowardly self. 

    • BlueCat says:

      Or you could demonstrate how the state has been wrecked. But you won't be able to do that either because you just parrot this stuff from spin central.  You don't know what any of it means.

    • Gray in Mountains says:

      s-pinworm. It took a lot more guts to grant the reprieve than it would have taken to deny

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