Nathan Dunlap granted temporary reprieve by Colorado Gov. Hickenlooper

Credit: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post
Nathan Dunlap at a May 1, 2013 court hearing at the Arapahoe County Court in Division court room 408 in Centennial.
By: Karen Augéand and Lynn Bartels
The Denver Post
Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Gov. John Hickenlooper on Wednesday issued an executive order granting convicted killer Nathan Dunlap a "temporary reprieve" from an execution that had been just three months away.

In an executive order that provides an indefinite stay of execution, Hickenlooper writes that the decision has weighed heavily on him.

He calls Dunlap's crimes "horrendous" — although nowhere in the order does he refer to Dunlap by name — and declares his respect for the jurors who handed down the death sentence.

But more than 15 years have passed since that decision, and those years have provided "the benefit of information that exposes an inequitable system," Hickenlooper's order states.

"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The executive order will remain in effect until it is modified or rescinded by a future executive order.

Hickenlooper said at a news conference that it was "highly unlikely" he would revisit his decision, meaning Dunlap will remain in administrative segregation unless a future governor decides to proceed with the execution. Hickenlooper noted that Dunlap could have been moved to the prison's general population if he had been granted clemency.

Hickenlooper's executive order prompted outrage from victims' families and some law enforcement officials. Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler called the governor's order "cowardly."

"The knife that's been in my back for 20 years was just twisted by the governor," said a visibly upset Bob Crowell, whose daughter, Sylvia, was among those killed by Dunlap. Crowell made the comment after a conference call with the governor. Families of other victims could be heard shouting at Hickenlooper during the more than 20-minute call.

"We have a chicken governor, making us a chicken state, inviting all would-be murderers to come to Colorado," Crowell said.

During the news conference, Hickenlooper acknowledged that the general reaction from victims' families was "disappointment."

In a news conference on the steps of the Capitol after the governor's announcement, Brauchler said "disappointed isn't strong enough. This is a no brainer."

"Candidly there was no decision today," Brauchler said. "The governor shrugged."

"A man who ran on support of the death penalty can't muster the courage or decisiveness," Brauchler said. "This is shrugging."

Brauchler later added that Hickenlooper had made himself Dunlap's "guardian angel."

In a prepared statement released by his office, Attorney General John Suthers said Hickenlooper's views of crime and punishment are naive.

"It's been apparent to me that issues of crime and punishment are not his strength," Suthers said. "John Hickenlooper is an optimist. He has proven to be uncomfortable confronting the perpetrators of evil in our society."

Death penalty opponents praised the governor.

"The ACLU of Colorado applauds the Governor for recognizing real inequities in the death penalty and for acting affirmatively to halt movement towards execution of Nathan Dunlap," the group said in a statement.

"Killing Nathan Dunlap would do nothing to prevent crime, add to public safety, or bring back the lives that were lost," the ACLU statement said. "There will never be a way to guarantee a fair and just death penalty, and every execution perpetuates an arbitrary system that can and does make irreversible mistakes."

Dunlap attorney Phil Cherner said his client was grateful for Hickenlooper's reprieve.

"This is not a day to celebrate," Cherner said. "It's a powerfully good day for (Dunlap). But four families lost victims they have grieved and continue to grieve."

Earlier this month, attorneys for Dunlap filed a formal petition with the governor, asking him to commute Dunlap's death sentence to life in prison without parole.

His attorneys argued Dunlap, a victim of ongoing abuse as a youngster, suffers from serious bipolar disorder and was in the grip of a manic episode when the killings occurred.

Marj Crowell, mother of Sylvia Crowell, said before the announcement that she and her husband had made their case for denying clemency to Hickenlooper and the governor "was a good listener."

Bob Crowell said he wants people to remember Sylvia as a "smart and sociable young lady."

"I don't know why anyone would vote for someone who would want to do away with the death penalty in this case," Crowell said before the call with Hickenlooper.

Hickenloopermet with dozens of advocateson both sides of the issue after Arapahoe County District Judge William Sylvester set the week of Aug. 18 for Dunlap's death by lethal injection.

Sandi Rogers, whose 17-year-old son, Ben Grant, was one of Dunlap's victims, said she met with the governor and told him that "19 years, five months and 23 days — it was 23 days when I met with him — was long enough," for Dunlap's case to drag on.

"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," Rogers said last week.

She said her son wasn't scheduled to work the night of Dec. 14, 1993, when Nathan Dunlap hid in a bathroom until the Chuck E. Cheese's restaurant closed, then came out and one by one shot five employees, killing four, including Ben.

Ben Grant had only worked there about six weeks, she said. He was filling in that night for a co-worker who needed the night off to study.

"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 said.

Hickenlooper also heard impassioned pleas to spare Dunlap's life, from a broadbased assortment of groups, from the NAACP and the Latino Forum to the Colorado Council of Churches and numerous individual congregations and denominations.

The Latino Forum and the NAACP argued that the death penalty is disproportionately imposed on criminals who are African American or Hispanic, and pointed out that all three of the men now on death row in Colorado are African American, including Dunlap. All three also were prosecuted in Arapahoe County.

Brauchler has called allegations that race plays a role in seeking the death penalty "outrageous."

His office is currently seeking a death sentence for two white men: Edward Montour, who is facing retrial in the killing of a prison guard and accused Aurora theater shooter James Holmes.

Church groups argued that taking a life, even that of a murderer, ignores the sanctity of life, and cited what they say is Dunlap's mental illness.

"I pray that Nathan Dunlap will remain imprisoned for the rest of his life. I pray that he will never again harm anyone. And I pray that we will be a just society, and treat him justly — rather than resorting to the violence of execution," Rev. Samuel Aquila, Catholic Archbishop of Denver, wrote to Hickenlooper.

Dunlap, then 19, went to the Aurora Chuck E. Cheese's where he once worked and killed Grant, Crowell, 17-year-old Colleen O'Connor and 50-year-old Margaret Kohlberg, all employees of the restaurant who were closing it for the night.

He also shot and seriously wounded a fifth employee, Bobby Stephens, and made off with about $1,500 in cash and game tokens.

Dunlap is one of three men on death row in Colorado. The other two, Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray, were convicted in the 2005 murder of Javad Marshall-Fields and his fiancée, Vivian Wolfe.

Staff writers Kurtis Lee and Jordan Steffen contributed to this report.