The Politics of Killing
Fifteen years after the Chuck E. Cheese massacre in Aurora, the shooter is still on death row. Nathan Dunlap's only hope that his life might be spared is Colorado Governor Bill Ritter.
A NEW DISTRICT ATTORNEY NAMED BILL RITTER HEARS THE NEWS
When Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter woke up the next morning, reports of the Chuck E. Cheese killings were all over the local and national news. It was beginning to seem as if the year—and the violence—were never going to end. The wave of violence started in January, when a robber murdered a grandmother in her home in Park Hill. In May, a 10-month-old was nearly killed by a stray bullet at the Denver Zoo; in July, two gang members robbed and beat a woman and killed her husband in Capitol Hill. The local media dubbed it the "Summer of Violence" and ran death totals on the front pages. In Colorado, the Christmastime bloodbath at a Chuck E. Cheese was a macabre but fitting end to the year.
The violence in the city was a microcosm of the crime epidemic spreading around the nation. And what made the violence all the more disturbing, aside from the frequency and depravity, was how young the killers were. Often the offenders were trigger-happy gangbangers. Driving the violence, so went the consensus in the law enforcement community, was crack. As the drugs went, so did the gangs, and by the early 1990s, both had a chokehold on America's inner cities. Juvenile murder rates had tripled nationally. John Dilulio, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution, even coined a name for this new breed of young criminals: "superpredators." The public wanted justice—or maybe vengeance—with 80 percent of Americans supporting the death penalty. Law enforcement, prosecutors, and especially politicians quickly took up the rallying cry.
Michael Dukakis' 1988 Democratic presidential campaign was derailed when Republicans started running attack ads featuring unnerving images of Willie Horton, an African-American rapist. While Dukakis was governor of Massachusetts, Horton had been granted a weekend furlough from prison, and he raped again. Congressman Newt Gingrich helped the GOP take both the House and the Senate in 1994 with a "Contract with America" that promised increased funding for prison construction, tougher sentencing, and a stronger death-penalty law. In that political climate, even progressive Democrats—at least the most successful ones—were seizing on the political power of the death penalty. In 1992, an Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton received a clemency petition on behalf of Rickey Ray Rector, a mentally retarded man on death row. (After killing a police officer, Rector had shot himself in the head, effectively lobotomizing himself.) Clinton had long been opposed to the death penalty, but now he was running for president of the United States. Clinton denied Rector's petition. It took the executioner an hour to find the right vein.
Like a young Bill Clinton, the young Bill Ritter had what he described as "some very strong reservations" about the death penalty. It was not so much a political view as it was a belief rooted in his religion. Ritter was born into a Catholic family of 12 children, all raised on a five-acre farm in what is now Aurora. The Ritters took their faith seriously, and perhaps none more so than Bill, who spent two years at a Catholic high school seminary in Texas before deciding that he didn't want to become a priest. It was then, in the early 1980s, that a career in law as a Denver deputy district attorney presented itself as a suitable calling. After all, wasn't the pursuit of justice a way of serving a just and merciful God?
Although he was a Democrat, Ritter was pro-life, his church's Catholic doctrine advocating for the sanctity of life for the born and unborn. Ritter opposed abortion, with exceptions—rape, incest, and health of the mother—and had publicly expressed his "personal doubts" about the death penalty. And Ritter's deeply rooted convictions threatened to undermine a tremendous professional opportunity at the beginning of the summer of 1993, when Governor Roy Romer was looking for a district attorney. The current DA, Norm Early, was burned out and wanted to retire; a search committee had recommended that the governor consider Ritter for the post. Considering the political climate, one of the things Romer needed to know was whether Ritter would pursue a death-penalty sentence to the end. Ritter assured the governor he would; that he would subjugate his "personal doubts" to the law of the state and the beliefs of the voters, and Romer appointed him DA.
Ritter didn't have that much to worry about when it came to actually reconciling his faith's doctrine of protecting life with his professional commitment to implementing a death sentence. Colorado hadn't executed anyone in more than 25 years. Out of 77 potential capital punishment cases, only seven men had been sentenced to death across the state, and none, so far, had been executed. More frequently, juries, stymied by one reluctant juror, hadn't been willing to execute. When the two gang members killed that husband in Capitol Hill, only weeks after DA Ritter took office, it seemed like he would face his first test. The court of public opinion wanted a life for a life. Legally, though, there was no way Ritter's office could secure a death sentence in the case. Police weren't sure which gang member had pulled the trigger in Capitol Hill. And because the Chuck E. Cheese murders happened in Aurora, outside the Denver DA's jurisdiction, Ritter wouldn't have to consider the Nathan Dunlap matter either. At least not yet.