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

In his more than 25 years in office, Arapahoe County District Attorney Robert Gallagher had never won a death-penalty conviction. But two years after the 1993 Chuck E. Cheese murders, the voters who'd elected him to office term after term were still enraged. The slayings had made national news. The former Arkansas governor who'd executed Rector, the mentally disabled con, was now President Bill Clinton, and President Clinton had used the Chuck E. Cheese killings to reinforce his tough-on-crime message. The case had generated so much interest, stoked the fires of the potential jury pool in Aurora, that the court decided Dunlap ought to be tried elsewhere in order to find a jury of objective peers.

The rare change-of-venue order moved the case some 60 miles away to Colorado Springs. Arapahoe County DA Gallagher entrusted the prosecution of the capital case to his heir apparent, Jim Peters. Because Dunlap couldn't afford an attorney, the court appointed Forrest "Boogie" Lewis and Steven Gayle to defend him. Both attorneys had won life-without-parole convictions for clients in death-penalty trials. It appeared they understood that their job was twofold: persuade a jury that there was reasonable doubt of Dunlap's guilt, and, if necessary, do their best to secure the most lenient sentence.

It came as no surprise that Peters presented a remarkably strong case against Dunlap. The evidence was overwhelming. Bobby Stephens had survived the bloodbath—a small scar on his cheek the only visible reminder of that night—and testified that there was no doubt in his mind that Dunlap was the one who had killed his friends and coworkers. Using fancy new slideshow technology, prosecutors flipped gruesome pictures of murdered teenagers before the jury. They put the coroner on the stand; he plunged knitting needle­­-like rods into Styrofoam heads to show how a bullet moved through skulls and brains. The prosecution lined these macabre models on a table in the courtroom. A detective even turned on Ben's vacuum cleaner so jurors could hear its whining.

The prosecution presented to the jury a narrative of Dunlap's biography that cast him perfectly, exclusively, as one of those superpredators. At 15, Nathan had committed several robberies, first using a golf club as a weapon and later guns. He ended up in juvenile court, which offered him the opportunity to turn his life around. Instead, he sold drugs off and on, and hung out with a wannabe gang that robbed places for quick hits of cash. In 1993 alone, he was arrested five times on misdemeanor charges. Until that December night at Chuck E. Cheese. The lead prosecutor Peters and his team pointed out that since Dunlap had been in jail, awaiting trial, he had torn a leg off a metal desk, sharpened it, and began to scrape away at the window ledge in his cell. They took pictures of Dunlap's new jailhouse tattoos: One was "Crazy Horse," the new nickname he'd embraced; the other was a smoking handgun with the phrase "By Any Means Necessary."

The exclamation point on the prosecution's case was Dunlap's own words. Peters informed the jurors that Dunlap had confessed to fellow inmates, to a jail deputy, to friends—many of whom had testified against him in exchange for reduced sentences—and to a trusted mentor. As to the question of motive: Why did Dunlap go on his murderous spree? What reason could there be? The case the prosecution so commendably presented to the jury, in short, went like this: Dunlap entered the Chuck E. Cheese that night, ordered a ham-and-cheese sandwich, played a video game called Hogan's Alley where he shot bad guys; when the game was over, he hid in the bathroom until closing, then emerged and executed four people for real—because he wanted revenge for being fired from his "doughmaster" job at the same restaurant months before. Peters even put Dunlap's mother, Carol, on the stand expecting she would plead the Fifth—which she did—thus leaving the jury with the impression that Dunlap's own mother couldn't muster a word on her son's behalf.

The proceedings were then turned over to Dunlap's defense. Throughout the prosecution's show, Lewis and Gayle, who declined to comment for this story, had offered few objections, and as they now made Dunlap's case offered no rebuttals. Dunlap wanted to testify, but his attorneys advised him against it. In fact, Lewis and Gayle did not call a witness—they did not have a single person testify on their client's behalf—and then they rested. On February 26, 1996, the jury, who had been sequestered in a local hotel, took just three-and-a-half hours to find Dunlap guilty.