- The Washington Times - Monday, October 27, 2014

DENVER — Candidates have been known to characterize their campaigns as matters of life or death, but a man’s life literally does hang in the balance in the Colorado governor’s race.

Nathan Dunlap, the death row inmate who killed four employees at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in 1993, was scheduled to be executed in August 2013 until he received a temporary reprieve from Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Mr. Hickenlooper hasn’t ruled out the possibility of commuting Dunlap’s sentence from death to life in prison without possibility of parole in the months after the Nov. 4 election if he loses to Republican Bob Beauprez. Meanwhile, Mr. Beauprez says that if elected he would allow the Dunlap execution to proceed.

Mr. Hickenlooper’s decision to intervene has been broached in debates and mentioned in some ads, but with just one week until the election, Republicans are mobilizing to push the Dunlap reprieve to the forefront of the too-close-to-call campaign.

The Republican Governors Association released an ad Monday featuring an interview with Dennis O’Connor, the father of 17-year-old victim Colleen O’Connor, in which he calls Mr. Hickenlooper a “coward” for granting the Dunlap reprieve.

The footage was taken from a searing 13-minute video interview with Mr. O’Connor posted online last week by the independent-expenditure group A Better Colorado Future.

Mr. O’Connor and other victims’ family members met with Mr. Hickenlooper prior to his decision to grant the Dunlap reprieve, but Mr. O’Connor says he could tell at the meeting that the governor had already made up his mind.

“I mean, he sat in a room, and he lied to me,” Mr. O’Connor says in the ad. “It was all political. It was totally political. At the expense of my daughter. He’s a coward who doesn’t deserve to be in office.”

Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli called the public-safety issue a “natural” for Republicans as they move into the final stretch of the race. Support for the death penalty remains strong in Colorado: A Rasmussen Reports survey released Sept. 8 found 59 percent in favor and 25 percent against.

“It’s hard to say how many voters are ready to move a bit at this point, but you want to have a fresh issue to go into the final week, week and a half,” Mr. Ciruli said. “Depending on how much advertising they can do, this is the kind of issue that will get people’s attention. And even getting criticized by supporters of the governor raises the attention level.”

Mr. Ciruli was referring to an ad released last week by the Beauprez campaign, called “Neighborhood,” which calls into question the governor’s record on public safety. The ad came under fire for referring to the March 2013 murder of state corrections chief Tom Clements at his home by Evan Ebel, a prisoner mistakenly released before his parole date.

The ad doesn’t mention Mr. Clements by name, but his widow, Lisa Clements, called on Mr. Beauprez last week to stop using “our family’s tragic loss for your personal and political gain.”

The Beauprez camp agreed to pull the wording that refers to Mr. Ebel, but kept the section citing the Dunlap reprieve.

“Now John Hickenlooper is suggesting full clemency for convicted mass murderer Nathan Dunlap,” says the ad. “With John Hickenlooper as governor, is your family safe?”

Mr. Hickenlooper has defended his May 2013 executive order granting the temporary reprieve, saying at the Sept. 30 Denver Post debate that, “The families are evenly divided between those who want execution and those who really don’t.”

“I don’t think government should be taking another person’s life,” Mr. Hickenlooper said. “Regardless, Nathan Dunlap is going to die in prison, without question.”

The governor suggested in an unaired CNN interview released in August that he could grant clemency in a lame-duck session if he loses the election. He later said he has “no intention” of revisiting his temporary reprieve order.

Mr. Hickenlooper continues to hedge on the issue, saying at the Denver Post debate, “What we said is that we would give him a reprieve until the state has a thorough discussion, which certainly we’re having. And down the road, that decision will get made.”

Attorneys for the 40-year-old Dunlap argued in their request for clemency that Dunlap suffered from undiagnosed bipolar disorder when he shot five employees at Chuck E. Cheese, killing four and wounding another. Dunlap had recently been fired from his job at the Aurora pizza restaurant.

Republicans have accused Mr. Hickenlooper of flip-flopping on capital punishment, noting that he said during the 2010 gubernatorial campaign that he was in favor of the death penalty, with restrictions.

“Time and time again, John Hickenlooper has failed to step up and lead, but in no circumstance is that failure more evident than in the case of mass murderer Nathan Dunlap,” said RGA spokeswoman Gail Gitcho in a statement. “Letting a convicted murder go free for the sake of politics is not leadership, it’s cowardice. Colorado deserves better than that from its governor.”


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