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

The correctional officers wouldn't stop taunting Dunlap. It was October 13, 1997, and on that day the state of Colorado was executing Gary Lee Davis, a convicted rapist and murderer. He was the first man whom the state had put to death in 30 years. The guards reminded Dunlap that his last days were looming; that he, too, would be led to a table, where IVs would be threaded into his veins, and he would wait as his heart pushed three poisons into his body. The first would render him unconscious. The second would paralyze him. The final, lethal poison would stop his heart. Two short minutes later, he would be dead. As Dunlap waited in his cell, paused between life and death, he smeared feces on his mouth. It was a manic breakdown, doctors realized, and one that would lead to a mental-health diagnosis: Nathan Dunlap has bipolar disorder.

Characterized by episodic mood swings between two poles—mania and depression—bipolar disorder can take up to 10 years or more to diagnose. A pattern of mental shifts must be established, but the rate at which a person cycles between the poles varies dramatically. If a doctor evaluates a person between shifts, identifying the symptoms—sexual promiscuity, recklessness, delusions of grandeur, to name a few—is a struggle.

Dunlap, as doctors would piece together, had an earlier manic episode, on Valentine's Day in 1994. Normally a quiet prisoner, something, it seemed, was disturbingly wrong with Dunlap, who was then awaiting his criminal trial. A guard watched as he quietly read Bible passages at one moment and then ran to the window screaming obscenities at the next. He was moved into a rubber-walled room and placed on suicide watch as his pandemonium continued. He would tear off his clothes and spread feces on his body and the walls. He was taken to the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo, looking emaciated, scared, and wild. The Arapahoe DA's office had been preparing its case for more than a year, but this breakdown could have changed everything: Was Nathan even sane enough to stand trial? A two-week stay turned into a nearly five-month evaluation. A defense expert found that during his stay in Pueblo, Dunlap showed signs of psychosis at least 10 percent of the time. But the state's doctor was convinced Dunlap was faking and told the court so. On July 8, 1994, Dunlap was deemed competent to stand trial. And despite their own expert's odd evaluation, the defense avoided discussing his mental health or his unstable behavior at the mental health institute in Pueblo during the trial.

Bipolar disorder has a strong hereditary link. Children of a bipolar parent have a 14 percent chance—the rest of the population only has a 1 to 3 percent chance—of developing the disorder. In Nathan's family, his maternal grandfather, an uncle, and his mother, Carol, have all been diagnosed with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Carol's struggle for a diagnosis was particularly turbulent, resulting in a half-dozen hospital stays that took her in and out of her childrens' lives. Shortly after Nathan's birth, she was hospitalized in Waukegan, Illinois, and Nathan was sent with Adinea to a foster home. By the time he was two, the kids were back with Carol and on the move, stopping in Michigan for a time, and eventually ending up in Colorado in 1984. Nathan was 10.

A year or two later, according to court documents, Carol was formally diagnosed, but meanwhile she went through unmedicated periods when her symptoms would return. Pre- and post-diagnosis, her manic swings were accompanied by corporal violence and left her hypersexualized. She'd walk around the house naked, stay up cleaning and moving furniture for days, and take a dozen baths in a 24-hour period. Nathan would sometimes wake at 3 a.m. to find his mother shrieking, raving, and stacking their belongings on the lawn. When Dunlap was an infant, she once discarded him in the trash. She was hospitalized for trying to hurt Dunlap's younger brother, Garland, and has admitted that she hated Adinea since conception. For her three young children, living with Carol was a roller coaster of abandonment and abuse.

By 1989, things had changed. Adinea had moved out of the house and her lanky, all-elbows-and-knees brother was transforming. As his robberies escalated—antisocial behavior that a social worker saw as a cry for help—and Dunlap was shuttled between juvenile detention centers, Carol started to wonder if her young son wasn't suffering from the same mental-health demons she struggled with. A 1989 evaluation while at a juvenile treatment center showed signs of a conduct or thought disorder. Another examination showed he was depressed. A psychiatrist thought he might have oppositional disorder, something akin to bipolar disorder. Again and again, Dunlap was sent home without a diagnosis. He couldn't be suffering bipolar disorder. After all, he was just a kid, and kids didn't get bipolar disorder.

Four years later, at the time of the Chuck E. Cheese murders, it was still uncommon to look for symptoms of bipolar disorder in children or teenagers. Doctors believed that these symptoms didn't manifest until after puberty, usually around the age of 19 or 20. But today, doctors do diagnose children and adolescents. When discovered in an adult subject, it is difficult to work backward and see when their symptoms first manifested. Early teenage evaluations may have missed mood patterns or simply dismissed them as adolescent angst. Today, at least three doctors have agreed that Dunlap suffers from the disorder, but they all examined him after the 1996 trial and are unable to say with any certainty whether he suffered manic episodes earlier than that. Most important, they don't know if he suffered a manic break on December 14, 1993, the date of the Chuck E. Cheese murders.

David Lane, an attorney who has been an advisor to Dunlap's defense, believes that Dunlap's trial attorneys should have done much more to explore the mental-health issue—no matter how murky the waters. While Dunlap's defense attorneys introduced Carol's mental health, they presented no medical expert to discuss what, if any, impact that had had on Dunlap. "It is really incumbent upon the defense to find well-qualified doctors that have the credentials to be very credible people to do the full evaluation and tell the jury the whole story," explains Lane. "That didn't happen in Nathan Dunlap's case."

There was at least one doctor who was ready to help the defense—in fact, Dunlap's attorneys engaged her to do just that. Psychiatrist Rebecca Barkhorn examined Dunlap at the time of the trial and expected to testify in the penalty phase that he suffered from a narcissistic personality disorder. But the defense never called her. The defense also failed to provide her with Dunlap's complete charts from his time in Pueblo, reports that she wouldn't see until years later during the appeals process. When she did finally have the complete picture of Nathan Dunlap's family history and medical histories, she said that the information would have changed her original evaluation. If she had known then what she knows now, Barkhorn says, she would have testified that Dunlap suffered from bipolar disorder and that he had suffered from the disorder since birth.