Faced with a decision to allow the execution of killer Nathan Dunlap or grant him clemency, Gov. John Hickenlooper chose to do neither. Instead, he granted an extraordinary "temporary reprieve" that likely means Dunlap won't face execution as long as Hickenlooper is governor.
With Colorado's first execution in 15 years set just three months away, Hickenlooper on Wednesday issued an executive order that angered victims' families, ignited a political firestorm over capital punishment in Colorado and gave hope to death penalty opponents.
"Colorado's system of capital punishment is imperfect and inherently inequitable," Hickenlooper said after announcing the reprieve. "Such a level of punishment really does demand perfection"
While the reprieve is "temporary," Hickenlooper said at a news conference that it is "highly unlikely" he will reconsider the death penalty for the man convicted of killing four people in an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese's restaurant in 1993.
In a Capitol rotunda crowded with reporters and observers, Hickenlooper stood alone at a lectern and began his public statement by saying he had just finished a "difficult" call to families of Dunlap's victims.
Many of those families were disappointed and angry at his decision.
"The knife that's been in my back ... was just twisted by the governor," a visibly upset Bob Crowell said after the conference call with the governor. Crowell's daughter, Sylvia, was one of those Dunlap killed.
During the more than 20-minute call, families of other victims could be heard shouting at Hickenlooper.
Attorney General John Suthers issued a statement that said Hickenlooper "has proven to be uncomfortable confronting the perpetrators of evil in our society."
"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."
Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler, whose predecessor Jim Peters prosecuted Dunlap in 1996, blasted Hickenlooper for what he called his "refusal to make any hard decision today."
"This is inaction. This is shrugging. This is not justice," Brauchler said as he stood on the steps of the Capitol moments after Hickenlooper's news conference. He said the execution of Dunlap should be a "no-brainer."
He called Hickenlooper Dunlap's "guardian angel" and said "one person in this goes to bed with a smile on his face tonight, and that is Nathan Dunlap."