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

On November 18, 1997, 19-year-old Nathan Thill approached a Senegalese immigrant named Oumar Dia at a Denver bus stop. It was nearly midnight, and Thill, a white supremacist, had been drinking for several hours. He pulled a gun, pointed it at Dia, and asked him, "Are you ready to die for being a nigger?" Thill shot Dia in the chest and the neck, killing him. Thill noticed bystander Jeannie VanVelkinburgh. He couldn't have a witness to the murder, so he shot her too, leaving her paralyzed.

Thill was arrested quickly, and confessed during a 90-minute interview with District Attorney Bill Ritter. In a subsequent interview with a Channel 7 reporter, Thill said, "I see a black guy at the bus stop and I kind of decided he didn't belong where he was at and how easy it would be to take him out right there. In a war, anybody caught in an enemy uniform should be taken out."

Denver was outraged by the hate-filled murder, and the fact that innocent victims had been gunned down; both Dia and VanVelkinburgh had just gotten off work and were headed home. Ritter told the media that he'd seek the death penalty. As with the Dunlap case, the court of public opinion in Denver had already rendered its verdict, and the court felt compelled to order a change of venue—to the city of Pueblo—in the Thill matter so he could face a fair jury.

The prosecution presented a straightforward case: Thill, an admitted skinhead, had killed Dia because he was black. Thill had attempted to kill VanVelkinburgh because she was a witness to the murder. The district attorneys showed the jury the taped TV confession. VanVelkinburgh, who was paralyzed and couldn't be in court, offered a taped deposition as the prosecutors' star witness. Thill was guilty, said the district attorneys. He deserved to die.

The court appointed lawyer Sharlene Reynolds to head Thill's defense. She had already successfully defended another death-penalty case: In 1998, she convinced a jury that Jon Morris—the man who'd raped and killed a five-year-old girl—hadn't intended to kill the child and had been out of his mind at the time. Reynolds used the same strategy in this case: Thill had killed Dia, but Thill wasn't mentally stable and was incapable of forming the intent needed for first-degree murder.

The defense steamrolled the prosecution. Reynolds presented more than 5,000 pages of evidence cataloging Thill's terrifying mental instability: He was beaten by his father before he was a year old, began receiving mental health care at five years old, started attempting suicide at age eight, was put on strong psychiatric medicine before he was 10, and spent most of his teen years in group homes and mental hospitals. The defense hired psychologist Suzanne Bernhard to testify that Thill—whom she had evaluated several times before the trial and whose medical records she had received—was in a manic rage from his bipolar disorder at the time of the murder. He couldn't be guilty of first-degree murder if he was in that state; the defense argued Thill deserved a conviction of second-degree murder, which would spare his life.

After two days of deliberation, the jury was deadlocked. Ten jurors wanted to convict Thill of first-degree murder, but there were two reluctant holdouts. Tom Mitscher, one of the jurors, later described Thill as "out in left field somewhere." With a jury unable to agree, the judge declared a mistrial. Instead of retrying the case, Bill Ritter and the DA's office gave the defense an offer: If Thill would plead guilty to first-degree murder, they wouldn't seek the death penalty. The defense agreed, despite the fact they had just argued against a first-degree conviction. They had accomplished their narrow goal: saving Thill's life. "Nathan Thill with a million dollars couldn't have found better lawyers," Larry Pozner, a well-known defense attorney, told the Rocky Mountain News, "and likely would have found worse."