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NOREEN: Colorado governor part of larger move away from capital punishment

May 26, 2013
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Gov. John Hickenlooper's decision last week to grant a reprieve to death row inmate Nathan Dunlap reverberated throughout Colorado, drawing both praise and scorn.

Dunlap was convicted of murdering four people in 1993 at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant. An eyewitness survived, so the case was never a who-done-it. Hickenlooper has doubts about the death penalty but he left Dunlap's fate in limbo, because the reprieve is in effect only as long as Hickenlooper is governor, perhaps 2020. He could have granted clemency, which would have spared Dunlap a date with the executioner, but no Colorado governor has granted clemency to someone on death row.

Many Coloradans, especially the families of Dunlap's victims, were outraged. Placed in a state or national context, Hickenlooper's decision, at least statistically, doesn't appear to be radical.

Unlike other states, notably a handful in the South, Colorado rarely imposes the death penalty. There are just three inmates on Colorado's death row and no one has been executed since Gary Davis died by lethal injection in 1997.

When Davis was executed it had been 30 years since Colorado's last execution. There is a federal death penalty that has been used only 27 times since 1950.

Since the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court, there have been 498 executions in Texas and one in Colorado. Texas consistently has a higher murder rate than Colorado, but some of the 17 states that no longer have a death penalty statute (New Mexico, for instance) have high murder rates.

Forty of the 50 states have executed fewer than one person a year since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. This is not to say that Colorado and Hickenlooper are right or wrong, but they have a lot of company and the mood across the nation is moving away from capital punishment.

Since 2009, voters in Connecticut, New Mexico and Maryland have approved death penalty bans.

Some Colorado Republicans have vowed to make Hickenlooper's reprieve of Dunlap a campaign issue next year but as always, it remains to be seen whether capital punishment will remain a hot-button issue a year from now, when the gubernatorial campaign heats up.

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Contact Barry Noreen at 636-0363 or barry.noreen@gazette.com. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter.

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