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

If anyone watching the Dunlap trial had thought that maybe his defense attorneys, Lewis and Gayle, had kept their powder dry until the sentencing phase; that maybe they'd made the calculated risk to almost stipulate guilt in order to hold onto a strategic trump card that would convince the jury to spare Dunlap's life and instead sentence him to life in prison—if anyone had been thinking that, they were wrong.

In order to win the death sentence the people of Arapahoe County sought, prosecutor Peters needed to persuade the jurors there was an "aggravating" factor, essentially a detail of the crime that made Dunlap's murders especially heinous. Just one aggravating factor. Peters presented 28, including the fact that Dunlap had a prior felony, the fact he committed a robbery during the killing spree, and the fact that he lay in wait in the restroom before the shootings. During the sentencing phase of death-penalty hearings, prosecutors often present many aggravating factors hoping to land the one that secures a sentence of death.

The defense's job at the sentencing phase is a bit more nebulous. If the defense could get one juror to disbelieve the prosecution's assertion that Dunlap was a superpredator who coldly murdered four people for something as simple as revenge for getting fired from his fast-food job; if they could make the jurors see that it wasn't that simple but rather there were other more complex factors, "mitigating" factors that do not excuse, but might explain, how a 19-year-old could execute four people and then go have sex with his girlfriend, then Dunlap's lawyers would save his life.

Dunlap has described his family life as "ideal, perfect, very wonderful." In reality, however, it was quite something else. He and at least one of his two siblings, an older sister, Adinea, were abused, often without provocation, by both parents. His father, a nearly 400-pound Baptist minister named Jerry Dunlap, had married Carol six months after Nathan was born—and brutalized the young child. One time he threw Nathan down a flight of stairs. Another time he threatened to beat him with a heavy metal copyholder. There also would be testimony of Jerry pounding on his son in a Burger King bathroom and slamming Dunlap into a locker. Dunlap's sister, Adinea, tried to break up the fights and steer her brother clear of Jerry when the minister was in one of his moods. But she was fighting battles of her own.

Over the years, while Jerry Dunlap physically abused Nathan, he wreaked a different type of havoc on Adinea. Nathan realized this one day when he descended into the basement of the family's home and found his father sexually assaulting her. Always trying to protect her brother, Adinea pretended that they were only "playing." But the damage was done. After that day, Adinea now says, "Jerry's abuse of Nathan took on a vengeful intensity." At home, Dunlap took the blows of this colossal man; but out on Aurora's streets he was the one inflicting the violence. Petty crimes turned into more serious robberies. He was just 15 and becoming increasingly violent when a social worker told him that Jerry—the only father he'd ever known, the father whose name he carried, the father who beat him, the father who was sexually assaulting his sister—was not his biological father.

Dunlap's attorneys laid these facts before the jury without, again, calling so much as a single expert to attempt to assign them meaning. So what if the likes of the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice advocacy group, reports that exposure to violence at a young age increases an adolescent's propensity for violence by as much as 40 percent? What the jurors heard was a sad story, but one easily dismissed as irrelevant cliché. Especially considering the closing statement from Dunlap's own attorney. "How can anyone be so cold?" Forrest Lewis said. "How can anyone be so cruel? What road can anyone go down that could take them to the point where they could make the choices that were made at Chuck E. Cheese? I still don't know.... If you choose to kill my client under the facts of this case, I will respect your decision and you will hear not one word of criticism of you from me."

The weak defense paled, too, in comparison to what the victims' families said in court. They had been warned not to talk directly to the defendant, but they couldn't help it. "Nathan Dunlap killed us all," one of Margaret's daughters said. "We just didn't die." Ben Grant's mother phoned in—she'd left the state after her son's murder—to say, "Maybe now you understand the fear that was in my son's eyes when you pointed a gun at his head." Dunlap sat quietly, listening, until Sylvia's brother confronted him, saying that the murders were racially motivated (all of the victims were white). Then something in Dunlap broke, or broke more. He started to rave and rant in a three-and-a-half-minute monologue that left him sobbing uncontrollably, "Kill me right now. I have [had] enough of this motherfucking shit. You can take me to the motherfucking little chair and do what the fuck you want." Dunlap was given two death sentences for every life he'd taken.