DENVER | Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s decision to grant a reprieve last week to an infamous death row inmate means that a man’s life is literally on the line in the 2014 gubernatorial race.
If voters re-elect the Democrat Hickenlooper, it’s highly likely that so-called “Chuck E. Cheese killer” Nathan Dunlap’s life will be spared. On May 22, the first-term governor granted Dunlap a “temporary reprieve,” putting off indefinitely his execution for the 1993 shooting deaths of four employees at the Aurora restaurant.
It’s hard to fathom why a candidate would willingly tie his fate to that of a notorious mass murderer, but that’s what Mr. Hickenlooper has effectively done with his decision to split the difference between an outright grant of clemency and allowing the execution to proceed. The decision by the governor, who some think may have designs on national office some day, is already having political consequences.
Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler, whose office prosecuted the Dunlap case, isn’t mincing words, calling the governor’s decision “outrageous” and “cowardly.”
The governor “has now by his conduct and frankly, by his express words, said, ‘I want this to be a referendum on Nathan Dunlap and on me and on the death penalty moving forward in this state,’” said Mr. Brauchler.
Not surprisingly, Republicans are moving to take advantage of the newly created hole in the governor’s previously formidable political armor. The day after Mr. Hickenlooper’s announcement, two high-profile Republicans — former Rep. Tom Tancredo and Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler — took steps toward entering the race.
The Colorado Republican Party released an online ad, called “Justice Denied,” that plays parts of the 911 call from the shooting, an interview with lone survivor Bobby Stephens, and an interview with Dunlap in which he says, “I wanted them dead and they’re dead.”
In a state trending increasingly blue, analysts say the reprieve looms as an issue that could reverse the GOP’s fortunes.
“I think this is one of those issues that cuts deep, that won’t be forgotten by voters, and that will be terribly easy to remember in November 2014,” said former Republican Party Chairman Dick Wadhams.
Not only do polls show that Colorado voters support the death penalty, but by trying to put off the decision, Mr. Hickenlooper manages to come across as calculated yet weak, analysts say.
“He did it in a way that sounded indecisive,” said veteran Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli, previously a chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party. “If you’re truly against the death penalty, then you commute the sentence and take your lumps. … And it definitely opens it up for a credible candidate from the Republican Party.”
In his executive order, Mr. Hickenlooper cited his concerns about the death penalty in Colorado. While capital punishment is used sparingly in Colorado, all three inmates on the state’s death row are from the same judicial district and all three are black men.
Most Colorado Democrats have remained mum on the reprieve, with the exception of state Rep. Rhonda Fields, whose son and fiancee were killed by the other two inmates on death row. Mrs. Fields, who is black and represents a district in Aurora, said she was “saddened” by the governor’s decision.
Also within her district is the Century 16 theater where 12 moviegoers were killed and 58 injured in a mass shooting last summer.