Governor grants reprieve, but not clemency, to convicted Chuck E. Cheese killer Nathan Dunlap

DENVER - Gov. John Hickenlooper has granted a reprieve to condemned Chuck E Cheese killer Nathan Dunlap, who otherwise would have been executed in August.

Hickenlooper announced Wednesday afternoon that he has granted Dunlap a temporary reprieve, not clemency, out of respect for everyone who had been involved in the process and the law.

Clemency would have changed Dunlap's sentence to life without parole, whereas the indefinite reprieve means that Dunlap will not be executed as long as Hickenlooper is in office.

The reprieve will stay in force until Hickenlooper or another governor lift it. However, Hickenlooper said he believed it was highly unlikely that he would revisit his decision.

"We're not overturning that (the death penalty), but I recognize as governor I could not find the justice in making that decision (to allow the execution)," Hickenlooper said during a 2 p.m. news conference.

Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler, who oversees the jurisdiction where Dunlap was convicted and sentenced, delivered a scathing criticism of what he called Hickenlooper's "inaction."

"This is a no-brainer about what justice is," Brauchler said on the State Capitol steps. "In 1993 (Dunlap) committed cold-blooded murder. Not once, not twice, not three times -- four times. Three years after that, 12 people his attorneys helped pick found no hesitation or need to equivocate on his guilt or the appropriate sentence. And that sentenced was death."

"Here today (Hicklenlooper), a man who ran on his support of the death penalty, can't muster the courage or the decisiveness to decide whether or not a guy who killed four and tried to kill five should be put to death," the prosecutor said. "Make no mistake, this is not action, this is inaction. This is shrugging. This is not justice."

Victims' family members also blasted the reprieve.

"Twelve jurors all said, 'Put him to death for what he has done,' and the Governor has turned that upside down," said Bob Crowell, father of victim Sylvia Crowell, who learned of the decision by phone just minutes before the public announcement.

"How bad of a heinous crime does this have to be before someone goes to death?" asked Steve, one of the jurors who convicted Dunlap and sentenced him to death in 1996.

Dunlap's attorney, Phil Cherner, said the governor's decision was well-reasoned but unprecedented. He said they weren't "entirely sure what to do next."

Hickenlooper said Colorado's capital punishment system is flawed and the state doesn't have the drugs in place to carry out an execution by lethal injection.

The governor also discussed moral arguments about the death penalty, saying there are inequities evidenced by the low number of death sentences compared to the number of potentially eligible cases. 

"I think it is a pretty compelling argument about the inequity of the system," he said.

Hickenlooper also argued there was no statistical evidence of execution as a crime deterrent in states with the death penalty.

"This is a different level of penalty, people are subjected to different levels of punishment for what, objectively, you look at as very similar crimes," Hickenlooper said. "There just is a difference between death and life in prison without parole."

Brauchler paraphrased the governor's arguments in this way: "I don't like the death penalty, but I can't bring myself to grant clemency." The prosecutor added: "It feels as political as any decision he could have made."

"For someone who professed to do this out of respect for the victims, he has left this seeping wound open," Brauchler said. "He's given them nothing to hang their hat on, no closure at all."

"There's going to be one person, one person in this system who goes to bed with a smile on their face tonight and that's Nathan Dunlap," Brauchler said. "And he's got one person to thank for that smile -- that's Gov. John Hickenlooper."

Dunlap's defense attorney disagreed.

"He's not going to bed with a smile tonight. Mr. Dunlap faces the rest of his life in a cell that's about the size of two king size beds, from which he gets out maybe an hour a day. Maybe Mr. Brauchler needs to understand what punishment is really like," Cherner 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," the ACLU said in a statement supporting the governor's decision.

Colorado Republicans, however, disagreed with the decision in strong words.

"Gov. Hickenlooper's announcement today is cowardly. We are profoundly disappointed in his lack of leadership and inability to make a clear decision," the state Republican Party said in a written statement. "Gov. Hickenlooper's reprieve and stay of execution is denying justice for the victims and their families."

"It’s been my observation over many years that the extraordinary powers we give the president and our state governors is the one place in the criminal justice system where personal philosophy can trump the rule of law. And make no mistake about it -- that is exactly what has happened in the case of People v. Nathan Dunlap," Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, a Republican, said in a written statement.

Dunlap was a 19-year-old former employee when he walked into a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in Aurora in 1993 at closing time and shot five people in the head, before taking $1,500 from a safe. Three teenagers and a mother of two died. One person survived the shooting.

Dunlap had recently been fired from the restaurant.

Dunlap was scheduled for execution the week of Aug. 18.

Hickenlooper spoke about the factors he considered in his decision to grant the reprieve but refused to use Dunlap's name. Instead, the governor said "Inmate 89148."

"I don't use his name. I haven't with any of these mass killings, because I don't think he needs any more notoriety," Hickenlooper said.