Elections matter, and real people can be hurt by a politician’s decisions, or even the lack thereof. Last year, when Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper gave a temporary reprieve to mass murderer Nathan Dunlap, people were hurt.
Meet Dennis O’Connor, a father who lost his daughter and had waited 20 years for justice, when Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper threw his life into further limbo by refusing to make a decisive choice in the fate of his daughter’s killer.
In December of 1993, Nathan Dunlap hid inside a Chuck E. Cheese’s children’s restaurant from which he was recently fired, waited until after they closed, and shot five people, killing four. It was a brutal crime in a state with a tragic history of senseless violence. In 2010 when John Hickenlooper ran for Governor of Colorado he claimed that he was in favor of the death penalty for the most extreme cases – to Coloradans who knew the appeals for Dunlap would be running out – that meant he could allow an execution in the Dunlap case.
In May of last year, Dunlap’s execution date was set and Governor Hickenlooper had two choices (or so most believed): allow the execution to move forward, or offer Dunlap clemency and commute his sentence to life without parole. Governor Hickenlooper shocked the state by choosing neither and creating a temporary reprieve from execution for the remainder of his time in office. The Governor justified his indecision by demanding that the state of Colorado have a “conversation” about the death penalty.
John Hickenlooper answered the subsequent media questions about his lack of a clear choice with a condescending tone, implying that Coloradans weren’t yet evolved enough to have come around to his newfound opposition to the death penalty. So Hickenlooper forced the state into a bizarre limbo, making the execution of a horrible killer contingent upon his electoral defeat, effectively putting the death penalty for a single criminal up for a popular vote.
All this tension came to a head earlier this year when CompleteColorado.com reported that in a CNN interview, John Hickenlooper mentioned that were he to lose the election he might give clemency to Dunlap as a lame duck anyway.
In this world of politics we talk about decision and indecision as some kind of nebulous force that may have a marginal effect on the lives of our family and friends and neighbors. But Dennis O’Connor is a man who suffered personally at the hands of a Governor who couldn’t face a choice that he knew he would have to make when he signed up to run for the job. It was said best by the Arapahoe County District Attorney, George Brauchler, “Governor Hickenlooper shrugged.”