(DENVER) — Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has indefinitely delayed the execution of convicted killer Nathan Dunlap, saying that he had doubts about the death penalty, much to the dismay of victims’ families and a furious district attorney.
The killing of four employees in a Chuck E. Cheese’s in 1993 was a massacre that scarred the people of Aurora, Colo., long before shooter James Holmes opened fire in a crowded movie theater on July 20, 2012. Holmes killed 12 and wounded dozens more.
Dunlap, 38, is one of three men on the state’s death row. He was sentenced to death in 1996, but the victims’ families say they have been waiting for justice to be carried out for nearly 20 years.
The governor granted a reprieve to Dunlap, which means that he will not be executed as long as Hickenlooper is in office. The reprieve stays in effect until Hickenlooper or the next governor lifts it.
Hickenlooper also could have granted clemency, which would have changed Dunlap’s sentence to life without parole.
Dunlap had been scheduled to be executed in August. It would have been the state’s first execution since 1997.
“If the state of Colorado is going to undertake the responsibility of executing a human being, the system must operate flawlessly,” Hickenlooper wrote in his executive order. “Colorado’s system for capital punishment is not flawless.”
Hickenlooper cited a number of reasons for his decision, including a lack of statistical evidence that the death penalty deters crime, moral arguments and the state’s not being equipped with the drugs needed for execution.
“There’s going to be one person in this system who will go to bed with a smile on his face tonight, and that’s Nathan Dunlap,” Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler told reporters on the steps of the Colorado state capitol. “And he’s got one person to thank for that smile, and that’s Governor John Hickenlooper.”
“He’s made himself Nathan Dunlap’s guardian angel,” an aggravated Brauchler said.
The district attorney emphasized that a jury had found Dunlap guilty and sentenced him.
“To be 20 years and 20 miles removed from one of the most heinous acts of violence in the history of this state and hear, ‘Just not sure,’ does not feel like an act of courage,” Brauchler said. “It is certainly not leadership.”
Hickenlooper recently met with families of victims.
“The majority of the families really did feel that they would get closure from an execution. There were some that expressed gratitude and even some form of relief, [but] I think the majority were disappointed,” Hickenlooper said at a news conference.
One of the families he met with was that of 19-year-old Sylvia Crowell, who was killed during the Dec. 14, 1993, shooting. Sylvia was closing the salad bar at closing time when Dunlap, also 19 at the time, came up behind her and shot her in the head. He had recently been fired from the restaurant.
Sylvia’s parents, Bob and Marjorie Crowell, who live in Aurora, say they have been waiting 20 years for justice.
A “very disappointed” Bob Crowell said that he doesn’t think there will ever totally be closure in the case, but he believed that the execution could have demonstrated to other criminals that “they will pay the price with their lives if they perform an act like that in the state of Colorado.”
“This whole scenario of having to make us wait…it’s like having a knife stuck in your back every time somebody says or does something,” Crowell told ABC News. “Today was the trump of all of that when the governor refused to carry out the execution, or refused to let it happen.”
Dunlap went on to kill Ben Grant, 17, as he cleaned nearby and Colleen O’Connor, 17, who was cleaning the rowdy restaurant’s quiet room for adults when Dunlap approached her. She begged for her life, but he showed no mercy. Dunlap also killed the restaurant’s 50-year-old manager, Margaret Kohlberg.
He also shot Bobby Stephens in the jaw. Stephens, 20 at the time, was the sole survivor.
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio
Saeed Ahmed, CNN
Jackie Wattles, CNN