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.

December 2008

Seven months after Nathan Dunlap was convicted, Bill Ritter was in the midst of his reelection campaign for Denver district attorney. Taking over for Norm Early during the Summer of Violence, Ritter now had been DA for three years. He was well liked and respected by his colleagues, and was also highly regarded by the Colorado legal community. Craig Silverman, a former prosecutor and former law school classmate of Ritter's, was challenging him—and he kept telling anyone who would listen that Bill Ritter was soft on crime.

Ritter and Silverman had been friends at the University of Colorado Law School, played intramural sports together, were sworn in as lawyers together, and were hired on at the DA's office together. Even after Ritter became district attorney, their relationship remained strong. Ritter appointed Silverman to handle some of the tougher cases in Denver during the Summer of Violence. The two men remained close until early 1996, when Pat Schroeder, the longtime Denver congresswoman, decided to step down. Democrats scrambled. Silverman, weighing a run, talked to his old pal Ritter about an endorsement. The DA refused. He was between a political rock and a hard place. Diana DeGette, the Colorado representative who had helped select Ritter as district attorney for Governor Romer, had already entered the race; she was the party establishment's pick. Silverman resigned from the DA's office in order to challenge Ritter for the DA slot. Silverman immediately attacked Ritter's record on crime.

As DA, Ritter had focused on both criminal prosecution and prevention. Instead of jailing nonviolent drug felons, he created a separate court focused on rehabilitation and probation—a proactive system designed to stop repeat offenders, to keep them from spiraling into the gang violence spreading across Denver and America. The drug court had become a national model, though it was just one of his many prevention programs, including a courtrooms-to-classrooms program and a juvenile-diversion program. Ritter had created a system of second chances and forgiveness to fulfill the motto taught to him by his first boss, former Denver District Attorney Dale Tooley: Always do justice. It is a sentiment that also lies at the core of Ritter's faith.

At a debate held at the City Club of Denver in September of 1996, Silverman started criticizing Ritter's death-penalty policy. Ritter, he told the crowd, was against capital punishment. Need proof? He hadn't prosecuted a single death-penalty case during his three years as DA—not even against Jon Morris, who had raped and killed a five-year-old girl in 1995. "Ask him, when is Jon Morris set for trial?" Silverman said. "Will Jon Morris ever be set for trial? This guy is in the state hospital. It's unlikely a trial date will be set any time soon. And Bill Ritter knows that, so that makes it convenient for him to seek the death penalty against him." Ritter had planned for the attack. In response, on the spot, he made an announcement: Earlier that day, he and his team of prosecutors had set a date for the death-penalty trial against Jon Morris. The case would begin February 10. Standing at the confluence of politics and the law, Ritter had used a political debate to announce that he was aiming for an execution.