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May 23, 2013

Is Colorado Governor's grant of "clemency light" to quadruple murderer slick or silly?

GovernorhickenlooperThe question in the title of this post is prompted by this Reuters story concerning a fascinating — and clever? crazy? conniving? compelling? — decision made yesterday by the Governor of Coloardo concerning a convicted murderer scheduled to be executed in August.  Here are the basics:

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper granted a reprieve on Wednesday to the state's longest-serving death row inmate, ordering his execution blocked indefinitely in a move that infuriated prosecutors and victims' families.

"It is a legitimate question whether we as a state should be taking lives," Hickenlooper, a first-term Democrat, wrote in his executive order, issued in response to a request for clemency from condemned quadruple killer Nathan Dunlap.

Dunlap, 39, who has been confined to Colorado's death row for 17 years, was scheduled to be executed in August by lethal injection. His lawyers had asked that Dunlap's death sentence be permanently commuted to life in prison without parole.

Hickenlooper called his order a "temporary reprieve," noting the decision left open the possibility for a future governor to rescind it and allow the execution to move forward. "I think it's highly unlikely that I will revisit it," said Hickenlooper, who is up for re-election next year.

Hickenlooper said he met with the families of Dunlap's victims before issuing the order and that the consensus among them was "disappointment." Bob Crowell, whose 19-year-old daughter, Sylvia, was among those slain, accused the governor of playing politics with the death penalty. "I think it stinks," Crowell told Reuters. "He (Hickenlooper) has not listened to the victims."

Dunlap was convicted and sentenced to death in 1996 for shooting to death four workers at a suburban Denver pizza restaurant where he had recently been fired. He has run out of formal appeals, although his attorneys and others have filed lawsuits seeking to halt the execution.

Dunlap's attorney, Phil Cherner, said he was "heartened" by the governor's decision. "It is a powerful statement against the death penalty. It cannot be administered fairly and needs to be done away with," Cherner said. He added that he broke the news to Dunlap, who he said "continues to be remorseful" for the killings....

Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler, whose predecessor prosecuted the case, blasted the governor for granting what he called "clemency light" to a cold-blooded killer. "There's going to be one person in the system who will go to bed tonight with a smile on his face, and that's Nathan Dunlap," Brauchler said. "And he's got one person to thank for that smile, and it's Governor John Hickenlooper."

It was unclear what effect, if any, the reprieve would have on two more inmates now on Colorado's death row, or on other cases in which prosecutors are seeking the death penalty, including that of accused movie theater gunman James Holmes.  Legal analysts called the reprieve a victory for death penalty foes because it cast further doubt on the future of capital punishment in a state that has executed just one inmate in 46 years.

Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, a Republican and possible gubernatorial candidate, said the governor should not have allowed his "personal discomfort" with capital punishment to halt the execution. "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," Suthers said.

Whatever one might think about the substance of Gov Hickenlooper's grant of "clemency light" here (and I suspect commentors will have a lot to say on this front), I want to at least compliment him for issuing a lengthy explanation for his decision.  As summarized in this press release, Gov Hickenlooper provided this four-page detailed accounting of why he could not bring himself to allow Nathan Dunlap to be executed for his four murders.

Especially because Gov Hickenlooper is up re-election next year, and because it seems the current Colorado AG could be his opponent in that election, the unique decision to do a semi-permanent reprieve here will perhaps ensure that the death penalty in Colorado (where, of course, mass murderer James Holmes is being prosecuted) will be a front-and-center issue in the next Colorado election cycle.

May 23, 2013 at 09:52 AM | Permalink


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I'm actually sympathetic to this "temporary" commutation idea ("clemency" is a bit of a misnomer, isn't it?) since I'm wary about giving the executive solo power in these cases. Therefore, e.g., some sort of pardon board seems like a good idea. The theoretical power for one governor to commute every death sentence permanently, e.g., is dubious to me.

The opposition by the victims' families is noted. It might be noted though that there are cases where victims opposed the death penalty and they were ignored. The system gives the ultimate power here to the state. If, e.g., a prosecutor thinks the death penalty is not warranted in such and such a case, strong opposition by the victims' families does not necessarily obligate them to change their mind.

Given he has the power to do this, it is good that he laid out his reasons. And, if the public is strongly against his actions, they can voice their opposition in part in the polls. His commutation power also can be altered by whatever way available in the state to change it.

Finally, "silly" is a somewhat strange label for what he did, support it or oppose it. As to "slick," that might be a cynical way to explain it, but it also might be deemed smart in a strategic sense.

Posted by: Joe | May 23, 2013 10:16:22 AM

| "It is a legitimate question whether we as a state should be taking lives"--gov |
Yet, it’s an il-legitimate basis for clemency!

| in his executive order |
So goes the overthrow of the jury decision, successful work of the prosecution, $$ spent by the taxpayer, victims' testimony, and due justice, for a thing that “might be deemed smart in a strategic sense.”

Posted by: Adamakis | May 23, 2013 11:23:05 AM


"That was asked me for four years while I was Governor of the State of New York. . .My own personal belief
is that I would like to see capital punishment abolished throughout this country, but, on the other hand,
every law enforcement officer with whom I have ever spoken. . .believes that capital punishment is a
definite and distinct deterrent of murder.

It is, primarily, a legislative matter. I am in the unfortunate position here, as I was in Albany, of having to pass
on the question of the death penalty."


Posted by: Adamakis | May 23, 2013 11:29:35 AM

I don't know what's in Hickenlooper's heart. Perhaps his statement is truthful. But by outward appearances, this looks like a deeply cynical political move. If Hickenlooper truly thinks the death penalty cannot be administered fairly in Colorado, he should have commuted the sentence to life outright. Instead, he gets to pose as compassionate while still hinting that a future governor might undo his handiwork. And note that he he doesn't even rule out reversing himself! (He just "think[s] it's highly unlikely.") Abolitionists might like the result, at least in the short term, but they should realize that they're getting played.

Posted by: Anon | May 23, 2013 1:53:47 PM

I find the comment that the "death penalty cannot be administered fairly" absurd. Was Dunlap fair to his victims? Did he make a full and fair inquiry into whether their involvement in his firing, with an examination of aggravating and mitigating circumstances? Did he take care to murder them in a manner that minimized their pain, or that of their families? Did the victims have a chance to appeal to the Governor for clemency before Dunlap carried out his murders? Or was there an urgent reason why it was not possible for Dunlap to carry out such an inquiry?

Posted by: William Jockusch | May 23, 2013 2:26:19 PM

Pray, if you believe in prayer. May this Governor get beaten up by a criminal he loves so much. May Colorado experience a marked increase in its murder rate as punishment for voting for this Governor.

For those who do not believe in prayer, boycott the state of Colorado. To deter it.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 23, 2013 5:54:36 PM

He's a coward. His unwillingness to back abolition killed the bill to end the death penalty this year, yet he refuses to carry out a just death sentence. He's doing his best to avoid doing anything decisive or controversial.

Posted by: MikeinCT | May 23, 2013 10:33:32 PM

Hickenlooper is a dishonest and cowardly moral pygmy, which is to say that he belongs in the Democrat party. Yet again, a Democrat has weighed the interests of a cold-blooded capital murderer and those of victims' families and yet again, a Democrat has chosen the interests of a cold-blooded capital murderer. What is it about Democrat pols and Democrat judges (I repeat myself--a Democrat "judge" is pretty much a Democrat pol.) that makes them go all maudlin about capital murderers.

Here are some bon mots from Hickenlooper's masturbatory four page statement. (He should have saved his breath and merely told the truth--I don't like capital punishment, and so I am not going to let Dunlap be executed while I am governor.)

"It has forced me to think of this issue in a personal way because it is on my conscience the decision will weigh." Pardon me while I barf. First of all, he is the governor. But putting that issue to one side, the maudlin nature of this is simply exhibitionistic. And if his "conscience" (read sympathy for criminals), his conscience didn't seem all that troubled about jerking around victims' families while he played out his faux Hamlet-like decision process. Those who want to go see Hamlet can do so for a couple of hours--try living 20 years patiently waiting for justice for your loved ones only to witness the spectacle of some narcissist playing Hamlet for weeks. That alone makes Hickenlooper a despicable creature. Memo to Hickenlooper--this ain't about you.

"All those who debate this subject agree, however, on the finality of this punishment. Once an inmate is executed, that decision cannot be reversed." Gee, who knew--people don't come back from the grave. And two other discoveries: water is wet, and beer tastes good. This is one of those types of statements one finds from pseudo-intellectual college twits---it has a veneer of erudition, but in reality it's a trite observation. Yes, governor--that's why we spend a lot of time determining whether death is an appropriate punishment for a given murderer. Here, 20 years was spent.

"If the state of Colorado is going to undertake the responsibility of executing a human being, the system must operate flawlessly." Oh really? This is such a silly comment. But what it reveals is Hickenlooper's fundamental dishonesty and evil. If "flawlessness" is in Hickenlooper's mind a necessary condition to executing someone, then he should have spared everyone all the drama. No human system is "flawless." So why, with this conditionality in his mind, did he put the victims' families (and one surviving victim) through this farce? Ego and exhibitionism. And the ordinary people who were put in the position they were by Dunlap's reprehensible conduct were simply props on Hickenlooper's stage. Sick, and evil. In other words, a Democrat politician. At least President Obama, when he decided to spring a war criminal who tortured and murdered five US servicemen had the sense (I won't call it decency--it's just merely less callous) not to put the families through this sort of sick torture--he just let Ali Musa Daqduq go and had Vietor break the news to the families. (Notice how all you liberals don't dare debate that one--it's easier to defend the opinion diarrhea of the "wise [sic] Latina.")

Then, of course, Hickenlooper continues on about how the death penalty isn't flawless because there are some guys who escape capital punishment even though their crimes are worse or as bad as Dunlap's. Putting aside the obvious problem with this line of though--capital punishment requires individualized sentencing (and the crimes, of course, are not the only part of that, so it's ignorant to say that we should measure the fairness simply based on the crime itself--god, why are Democrats so stupid?), and requires (in Colorado anyway) a jury to unanimously agree. So, of course, you're going to have arguably inconsistent results. But that happens with the infinitely more weighty question of guilt vs. innocence. (One should be able to say that it is axiomatic that the decision to convict a person of a crime is a far more weighty decision than to decide whether a guilty murderer should be executed or spared.) So, in Hickenlooper's mind, it's ok to have this flaw in the regular criminal justice system, but not ok with respect to death. Why the sudden squeamishness about "flaws" with respect to a far less weighty moral decision? And not only that--these "flaws" are caused by things like the jury system, the democratic process and individualized justice--is it really fair to call differing outcomes caused by those things "flaws"--well, I guess it is, if you're a Democrat trying to justify what you already want to do--namely hook up a capital murderer.

Posted by: federalist | May 24, 2013 1:09:55 AM

ont'd from the last post.

"The fact that those defendants were sentenced to life in prison instead of death underscores the arbitrary nature of death in this State."

Yep, governor, the permutations caused by the jury system, the local democratic process, the individualized nature of each determination etc. makes the decision "arbitrary." That's a misuse of the word, and it is deeply dishonest, a Democrat trait. And once again, if that's arbitrary, then what of the "arbitrariness" of guilt/innocence decisions which result from prosecutorial discretion, the jury system etc.? Oh, and of course, the governor has to play the racism card by quoting some judge. Now he cannot come out and charge that race played a role here--leave that to the immoral editorial writers throughout the state to smear jurors, the prosecutors and the judge with no basis in fact. Instead, the governor just casts some deniable innuendo. Nice touch.

Then Hickenlooper yaps about the "inequitable" death penalty---ah, as if capital murderers have some right to cosmic fairness (in addition to the constellation of rights they receive in the proceedings) in their treatment. Once again, flabby question-begging thinking.

And then there's this:

"I once believed the death penalty had value as a deterrent. Unfortunately, people continue to commit these crimes in the face of the death penalty." Is this what passes for intelligent thinking for Democrat pols? Anyone with an IQ above room temperature can spot the flaw in that thinking. Um, governor, the death penalty's success as a deterrent is not measured in whether it stamps out all heinous murders, but in whether it deters some of them. Some studies have shown that the death penalty IS a deterrent. But the good governor can't be bothered with facts or clear thinking--he's got a murderer to save. And, of course, one would think that after all his hand-wringing and moral preening (and jerking around victims' families), he could make better arguments--but I guess he figures, rightly so, that the editorial boards are going to praise his "courage" and "Solomonic" decision--when in actuality, his actions were narcissistic and evil and his reasoning pathetically weak.

And then there's this:

"Ordering the death of another human being would weigh on any person's conscience. Some victims' families . . . ."

Um, non-sequitur much? But putting that flabby writing to one side---why doesn't yanking the rug out from these victims' families weigh on his conscience? He mentions his conscience with respect to Dunlap twice--but doesn't even give lip service to whether his conscience is bothered by what he is doing to these poor people who (a) didn't ask to be the family members of a murder victim and (b) didn't ask to be props in Hickenlooper's masturbatory hand-wringing. Of course, Hickenlooper (and Joe above) try to make the argument (without coming right out an saying so) that because some victims' families oppose death, the decision to execute is a wash as far as victims' families are concerned. Of course, common sense says otherwise (hence the reticence to come out and say it). Moreover, the issue is really the expectation of those who support death and the cruelty of the limbo. Those who oppose execution may have strong feelings about it, but they aren't getting the rug yanked out from under them. But back to the conscience issue--obviously, Hickenlooper and his lackeys spent some time crafting this crapola, but this turd can't be polished. And it cannot be that it was an oversight--Hickenlooper's conscience simply is not bothered by what he has done to these poor unfortunates. That's the only takeaway. Typical Democrat.

I cannot close without mentioning the rhetorical flourish of referring to Dunlap as "Offender Number umpty-squat." I am sure that seemed oh-so-clever to whatever douchebag actually squeezed this one past his sphincter (or maybe it was one of the polishers-who knows? Who cares?). But it falls very flat--it is a pitiful attempt to make a showing that Hickenlooper doesn't care about Dunlap--that he's locked away blah blah blah. It is an insult to the intelligence of anyone who reads it. And it must be deeply offensive to those victims' families. Cheap rhetorical window-dressing. At least Hamlet had some cool things to say, e.g., "Seek him in the other place yourself." Hickenlooper has earned a spot in the other place---perhaps there he and Offender Number umpty-squat can reminisce about how they put these families through so much pain.

Posted by: federalist | May 24, 2013 1:49:53 AM

In considering whether a reprieve specifically for Defendant X is warranted, it's too obvious for argument that the Governor should focus on whether defects (or alleged defects) that sometimes show up in the system have shown up IN THE CASE OF DEFENDANT X. This is where Hickenlooper completely misses the mark.

He is not (and very explicitly notes that he is not) the legislature deciding whether to keep capital punishment in the law as a general matter. He is the Governor deciding whether a legal and long-adjudicated punishment is proper IN THIS CASE. Hickenlooper's failure even to attempt to show that the DP is improper IN THIS CASE is the coup de grace of his "reasoning."

Hickenlooper does not so much as claim that there is doubt about guilt, or the that lawyers were ineffective, or that the prosecution was dishonest, or that every issue Dunlap has raised before the courts all these years was not fairly heard and decided.

Hickenlooper's statement, then, while attempting to appear analytical, is no such thing. It's not analytical because it does not even address the only subject of Dunlap's case, that being -- not to put too fine a point on it -- WHAT HAPPENED IN DUNLAP'S CASE.

What's left is exactly what federalist puts his finger on: Hickenlooper's personal opinion that "I don't like capital punishment."

Fine. He's entitled to his personal opinion. And I hope he trumpets it all over the state in his election next year, by campaigning in every town with that paragon of virtue, Nathan Dunlap, at his side.

And if for some odd reason he doesn't want to do that, the Republicans should do it for him.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 24, 2013 10:09:04 AM

Come on guys--defend Hickenlooper. I guess too many of you are tired of eating my rhetorical right hand.

Posted by: federalist | May 25, 2013 11:18:57 AM

I think you have a point here in this quote from FDR:


"That was asked me for four years while I was Governor of the State of New York. . .My own personal belief
is that I would like to see capital punishment abolished throughout this country, but, on the other hand,
every law enforcement officer with whom I have ever spoken. . .believes that capital punishment is a
definite and distinct deterrent of murder.

It is, primarily, a legislative matter. I am in the unfortunate position here, as I was in Albany, of having to pass
on the question of the death penalty."


What this quote means to me is that FDR knew enough about the design of the Founding Fathers to trust in the system and to know when to mettle in something and when to leave it alone.

Rather than looking at this expungement of the death penalty in this situation as an over-arching change in policy to be interpreted as future precedent, I see this as a one-time solution to be revisited by future Governors.

Posted by: Charlie Naegle | Jun 18, 2013 7:30:52 PM

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