Most of us go through life never having to decide whether another person should live or die. Even the vast majority of cops and soldiers finish their careers never having shot a person.
When John Hickenlooper set out to become governor of Colorado, he knew he might face a life-or-death decision. It goes with the job. Wednesday, the fateful day arrived, and Hickenlooper declined to accept the challenge.
The question on Hickenlooper's desk was whether to allow the execution of Nathan Dunlap - a man who brazenly executed four people in an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese's restaurant in 1993 - or to grant him clemency.
Governors have the option of stopping state executions because it enhances a system of checks and balances that gives all benefit of the doubt to those who are accused of and/or convicted of crimes. Our criminal justice system allows the ultimate penalty only if the sentence survives a rigorous succession of challenges. A death row convict's final hope is that a governor questions the verdict or simply opposes the sentence enough to go against the wisdom of jurors and appellate justices.
When Dunlap asked Hickenlooper for clemency, survivors of the killer's victims, along with other Coloradans, hoped they would get closure. Either Hickenlooper would decide to allow the execution or he would reduce it to a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole.
Stunningly, Hickenlooper did neither. Instead of making a real decision, Hickenlooper granted Dunlap an unusual "temporary reprieve." He said it is "highly unlikely" he will reconsider Dunlap's execution, which means he effectively kicked this issue down the road for someone else to decide.
The nondecision option means Dunlap had better campaign good and hard for Hickenlooper, as his re-election would buy at least another four years of life. Another governor could choose to allow the execution, which will almost certainly become a promise of some Republican contender.
Hickenlooper was in a no-win circumstance. It's hard to imagine any governor, regardless of philosophy, enjoys playing any role in another person's death. Had Hickenlooper allowed the execution, he would have pleased a majority of Coloradans who support capital punishment. Yet he would forever know that he allowed another man's death. Clemency would have pleased several million Coloradans who oppose the death penalty, while causing distress for survivors of the people Dunlap killed.
The nondecision managed to upset just about everyone.
A few survivors shouted at Hickenlooper. The father of victim Sylvia Crowell tried to explain his pain.
"The knife that's been in my back ... was just twisted by the governor," said Bob Crowell, after the governor called him and other relatives of victims to announce the nondecision.
Death penalty supporters seem no less angry than if Hickenlooper had granted clemency. And what about Hickenlooper, who would have to live with any decision in this matter? With the nondecision, he could still play a role in another man's death by leaving open the option for a successor to execute Dunlap.
Given that Hickenlooper did not allow an imminent execution, but allowed the potential of an eventual execution, it's hard to view this as a move based in his moral convictions. Rather, it seems like a decision made for political reasons. It's the decision that says Hickenlooper neither helped kill Dunlap nor prevented his killing in the future. On paper, at least, it's the closest thing to choosing gray when given a choice of white or black. It's like voting "present" in Congress to avoid creating a record for opponents to criticize.
It's a decision not to lead.
It's a choice that may be in Hickenlooper's best long-term political interests, but that's about it. The non-decision did nothing to benefit anyone else, including some future governor.
Gov. Hickenlooper is a talented and successful man who can and should do better than this. The people of Colorado elected him to make tough decisions in executive circumstances few others could or would sign up for.
The victims, their survivors, other Coloradans - even Dunlap - deserved an outcome. Instead, they got an executive decision to not make a decision. It is frustrating and disappointing, to say the least.