The death penalty surged to the forefront of Colorado's gubernatorial race after the release of an audiotape in which Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper hints that, if defeated, he would consider granting clemency to a notorious mass murderer.
In a 45-minute audio interview with CNN conducted Feb. 6, Mr. Hickenlooper intimates twice that if he loses in November, he would have the option of giving "full clemency" before leaving office to death row inmate Nathan Dunlap.
Mr. Hickenlooper granted a "temporary reprieve" to Mr. Dunlap in May 2013, three months before he was scheduled to be executed for the 1993 murders of four Chuck E. Cheese employees.
The audio was obtained by the conservative website Complete Colorado through a Freedom of Information Act request and played on the air Saturday by KNUS-AM talk show host Craig Silverman.
In the audio, an unidentified CNN interviewer refers to Republican primary candidates like former Rep. Tom Tancredo "who are saying, 'Elect me, and we'll kill this guy.' Doesn't that feel kind of like a lynch mob, I mean, in some sense?"
"Well, we won't let that happen, I mean that's obviously, that — it does feel that way," says Mr. Hickenlooper in the audio. "And, you know, if that becomes a political issue in that context within a campaign, obviously there's a period of time between the election and the end of the year where individuals can make decisions, such as a governor can."
Later in the audio, a second CNN interviewer follows up by apparently referring to polls showing Mr. Hickenlooper leading Mr. Tancredo. Former Rep. Bob Beauprez ultimately won the June 24 GOP primary but did not enter the race until later — in March.
"God forbid those numbers change drastically, and some people like Tancredo, who's browbeating this issue to death, somehow wins," says the CNN interviewer. "You alluded earlier that you have actions that you could take if that happened — in other words, if they emotionalize this topic and try to make it bigger than maybe it should be on a relative scale. Can you detail what you mean by what you said?"
Responded Mr. Hickenlooper: "You don't want to go into too much detail in these cases, but the issue that a political campaign would make a human life into, you know, a political football, is unacceptable. And A, I think it would backfire tremendously on any candidate who did that.
"And if they did do that and somehow they won, there are obviously remedies that the governor can do," Mr. Hickenlooper continues. "I could give it a full clemency between Election Day and the end of the year. There are a number of different opportunities to make sure that doesn't happen. Again, human life should not be a political football."
Mr. Hickenlooper said during the 2010 campaign that he supported the death penalty, with restrictions, but throughout the CNN interview, he listed problems with capital punishment, citing a lack of consistency and fairness, and calling it a "broken system."
Last week Mr. Hickenlooper told Fox31 in Denver that he now opposes the death penalty, prompting criticism from Mr. Beauprez, who supports capital punishment.
"The issue of capital punishment is a difficult one that we wrestle with as a society. That's why it's hard to understand John Hickenlooper's actions in light of these new statements," said Mr. Beauprez in a statement. "If he truly does oppose the death penalty, he should have commuted Nathan Dunlap's sentence instead of leaving the decision to the next governor. As Colorado's next governor, I will see that justice is served."
Hickenlooper spokesman Eddie Stern told 9News in Denver that the governor was responding to a hypothetical question.
"In this interview, and in response to that specific line of hypothetical questioning, he is discussing the legal options that are provided in the state's constitution," said Mr. Stern.
The interviews were conducted for a CNN special series, "Death Row Stories," for an episode entitled "Life or Death Election" that is slated to air Friday, according to the CNN website.
Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler, whose office prosecuted the Dunlap case, told KNUS-AM he was "outraged" by the governor's comments.
"He has made Nathan Dunlap's life in this case a political issue, and now throws down the declaration to CNN, 'If someone beats me, or someone is going to use this to defeat me, I will make sure that the greatest mass murderer in the history of Colorado — convicted — stays alive,'" said Mr. Brauchler.
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