Nathan Dunlap Death Penalty: Colorado Gov. Hickenlooper Offers Lesson With Non-Decision On Execution


Geologist gone brewpub entrepreneur gone politician, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper is known for his principled disregard for partisanship. Actively pursuing political diversity within his administration and approaching his initiatives deliberately and without rhetoric, Hickenlooper has managed to maintain large electoral margins while keeping the fickle centennial state relatively contented. But his recent decision (or, for some, a lack thereof) regarding capital punishment may have signaled his transition from pleasing no one to displeasing everyone.

On May 22, Governor Hickenlooper issued an executive order granting temporary reprieve to Nathan Dunlap, who was due for execution in August. In 1993, Dunlap entered a Chuck E. Cheese's location in Aurora at which he previously worked and opened fire, killing four employees. Neither bowing to the wishes of Dunlap's jury nor commuting his sentence to life imprisonment, the governor's reprieve serves to delay the execution indefinitely, or at least until the governor leaves office. Critics — and nearly everyone is in the purple state — have lambasted the governor for failing to take decisive action on the case. So heated is the issue that Tom Tancredo, the former Republican congressman who defected to the Congressionalist ticket in 2010, cited the reprieve as the "last straw" when he announced his renewed gubernatorial candidacy last Thursday.

In a public debate that is as multifaceted and as contentious as the one over capital punishment, there exists plenty of room for legitimate disagreement. But whatever your unique angle on the matter, Governor Hickenlooper's nondecision on capital punishment reflects an admirably deliberative approach to policy and healthy dose of humility in the presence of a daunting issue.

If the death penalty was practiced with more frequency in Colorado, the governor's statement concerning capital punishment might not have been so eagerly awaited. Since Colorado reinstated the death penalty in 1979, however, very few convicts have received the sentence and only one has been executed. This is probably why the governor and his staff began debating the topic almost a year ago, shortly after the appeal of Dunlap's sentence failed.

Since then, the governor has gone to fairly respectable lengths researching the facts of the Dunlap case; reviewing the merits and difficulties of capital punishment; consulting officials and thinkers on both sides of the issue; and even talking with those directly involved in Colorado's past death penalty cases. The end result of his deliberation is a conceptual support of capital punishment mixed with a supreme skepticism over Colorado's current implementation of the controversial policy. This much was evident back in March, when Hickenlooper discouraged the Colorado legislature from banning the death penalty, instead urging further dialogue toward reforming the state's imperfect capital punishment regime. His controversial reprieve two months later reflects the same prudent uncertainty, only with a flipped surface-value outcome.

Some might be tempted to write-off any talk of deliberation and soul-searching (such as that in the article linked directly above) as mere face-saving political rhetoric. But if Governor Hickenlooper really is acting on the basis of political considerations, the casual observer would surely deem his efforts as astonishingly unsuccessful. After all, when it comes to the Dunlap case, he could have made any other decision and made more friends. He could have left in place Dunlap's sentence on the simple basis that the perpetrator of such heinous acts deserves to die. Many would agree, but it takes little thought and less true leadership to generate this reasoning. Alternatively, the governor could have offered clemency, commuting the sentence to life imprisonment, on the grounds that capital punishment is unjust. This blind conviction too would have pleased some Coloradans, but certainly wouldn't have given the issue the thought it deserves. Instead, the governor chose the unthinkable third option — that of informed nondecision and principled uncertainty.

Governor Hickenlooper is not known for making decisions on the basis of conviction, and that is not a bad thing. Regardless of how indecisive it is, he came to his decision in the right way. As a public that is prone to complain when politicians make decisions without taking into account their unintended consequences, we ought not to punish officials who refuse to pick a decisive course when faced with inconclusive evidence.

When it comes to playing the nonpartisan political outsider, self-deprecating advertisement is one thing. Making a tough and unpopular decision on the basis of data and deliberation — now that is the real deal. Governor Hickenlooper may not always toe the party line (and that counts for something), but to this native Coloradan, the decision he made last Tuesday may be the most powerful evidence that the honest, Vespa-driving goofball we so admired back in 2003 for his meticulous approach and unassuming style has not faded away entirely after all.