DENVER - Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper's decision to block the execution of convicted killer Nathan Dunlap for as long as he is governor infuriated victims' relatives and drew quick criticism from Republicans ahead of the 2014 election.
Hickenlooper on Wednesday granted an indefinite reprieve to Dunlap, who is on death row for the ambush slayings of four people - three teenagers and a 50-year-old mother - in an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in 1993.
The reprieve essentially guarantees Dunlap, 38, will stay alive at least through Jan. 13, 2015, the last day of Hickenlooper's first term.
"I think it's highly unlikely that I will revisit it," Hickenlooper said.
"We feel the governor has taken the cowardly way out," said Marj Crowell, whose 19-year-old daughter, Sylvia Crowell, was killed. "They're just hoping we'll forget about this until we get the next governor."
Hickenlooper is running for re-election next year, and Dunlap's fate is certain to be a campaign issue. No prominent Republican has signed up to challenge him, but Wednesday's decision prompted unusually personal criticism.
"Hickenlooper should've been up front with voters when he ran for office if he could not carry out the death penalty," GOP Attorney General John Suthers said in a statement.
"He's made himself into Nathan Dunlap's guardian angel," said George Brauchler, the Republican district attorney in the office that prosecuted Dunlap. "He's said, 'As long as you keep me in office, Nathan Dunlap never has to face death.'"
"This is something we've seen consistently out of this governor," said Rep. Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, minority leader in the state's lower house. "'I'm not going to make a decision.'"
Hickenlooper has an image as a pragmatic problem-solver, and he enjoyed bipartisan popularity until this year. But he has been forced to take a stand on an increasing number of divisive issues since his party won back the statehouse in November.
He signed sweeping gun control legislation and approved laws to help people who are in the country illegally and to establish civil unions for same-sex couples this year.
On the death penalty, Hickenlooper has appeared to be searching for a middle way.
In a December interview with The Associated Press, he said of repealing the death penalty: "I wrestle with this, right now, on a pretty much daily basis."
Legislators this year considered a bill that would have ended the death penalty, but they dropped it when Hickenlooper sent word he might veto it.
In his reprieve order, Hickenlooper said the death penalty is used inconsistently across Colorado, and he cited problems in obtaining the drugs required for lethal injection, the execution method mandated by state law. He also said many states and nations are moving toward banning executions.
Dunlap, whose execution was scheduled for the week of Aug. 18, got only a reprieve, not the clemency he sought. Clemency would have removed the possibility of execution and changed his sentence to life without parole.
"Mr. Dunlap was grateful. His expressions of remorse were genuine. He is truly sad for what happened," said Phil Cherner, one of his attorneys. "This is not a day to celebrate."
Cherner has said Dunlap had undiagnosed bipolar disorder at the time of the crime, and that his attitude has changed since the state prison system began medicating him in 2006.
Associated Press writers Nicholas Riccardi, Colleen Slevin, Catherine Tsai and Kristen Wyatt contributed to this report.
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