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

It is, to say the very least, an odd circumstance that Bill Ritter knows firsthand what it feels like to kill a human being. As a young lawyer in the district attorney's office, Ritter distinguished himself, rapidly rising through the ranks, and by 1987, at the age of 30, was a chief deputy DA. Yet his commitment to his faith-based convictions trumped careerism. Married with a one-year-old son, Ritter left the DA's office, left Denver, left the country. With his young family, he traveled to Zambia, Africa, where he worked as a Catholic missionary, running a nutrition clinic. And one day, while Ritter was driving down a road in a small truck, a man stepped into the truck's path. Ritter tried to swerve, but the brakes hadn't caught in time. The back of the truck swung into the man. Ritter rushed the man to a local hospital, over the roads cratered with potholes and the shoulders overflowing with pedestrians. At the hospital, the man died within a day.

The man's name, according to one of the very few media reports of the incident, was Mushibi Katiki Chinyama. Chinyama had a wife and a family; he was a good man, an innocent man, not unlike Ritter, who himself had been a victim that day, a pawn in a terrible, unforeseen accident. At first blush, one might understandably wonder what Chinyama's death and Ritter's role in it have to do with Nathan Dunlap's looming execution and Governor Ritter. One possible answer is nothing at all. Then again, when one strips away the law and the politics, the answer might be everything.

Public support for the death penalty has fallen as violent crime has plummeted in the past decade. Murder rates are at their lowest in Denver and nationally since the 1960s. John Dilulio, who created the superpredator model, has retracted his idea, saying the data to support the catch-all term is no longer there. Now, only about 47 percent of Americans support capital punishment, down from a high of 80 percent. When further questioned, many Americans are equally content with life sentences for first-degree murder.

Meanwhile, undermining the supposed high bar of evidence in the capital-punishment system, several death-row convicts have seen their charges overturned through DNA evidence. In 2002, after evidence in Illinois proved that 13 men on death row were innocent, Republican Governor George Ryan commuted all 167 death-row sentences to life without parole, citing the vast inequality and ineffectiveness of the system. Ryan's mass commutation was exceptional, but other governors—both Democrats and Republicans—have used their clemency privileges to commute sentences. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 244 men escaped death courtesy of commutations. Many of the reasons were humanitarian: The criminal had a history of mental illness or trauma, or received ineffective legal counsel.

Despite the U.S. Supreme Court's 1976 ruling that capital punishment is constitutional, 14 states have either banned or never enacted death penalty laws. In 2007, abolishment gained some traction in Colorado, when Rep. Paul Weissmann, a Democrat from Louisville, proposed a bill that would take Colorado's death-penalty expenditures—$4 million annually—and invest them in a cold-case homicide unit to tackle unsolved murders. "Does it really make sense to spend [millions of dollars] a year on something we never use?" Weissmann says. "Any other program that costs us that kind of money and had the results that we've had would have been gone a long time ago." A victims families' advocacy group, Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons, supported the bill. Because about 1,400 murders have gone unsolved in the past 30 years in Colorado, and presently detectives only solve around 60 percent of all homicides, supporters of the bill reasoned that maybe solving murders and catching the killers might be a better use of resources than spending money on the appeals and executions of a select few convicted murders. Currently, there's not just a good chance you won't be executed for murder in Colorado—there's a good chance you'll get away with it.

At the time Weissmann presented his bill, Archbishop Charles Chaput, the head of Ritter's Catholic church in Colorado, weighed in. "The death penalty is a bad idea because it diminishes the society that employs it," Chaput wrote in his column in the Denver Catholic Register. "It doesn't deter capital crime. It doesn't bring back the dead. It doesn't give anyone 'peace.' It sometimes kills the innocent. It coarsens our own humanity and sense of justice. And while both Scripture and long Catholic tradition do support the legitimacy of capital punishment in extraordinary cases, the conditions that would justify its use in developed countries like the United States almost never exist." But lacking the support of Democrats like then-Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff and Governor Bill Ritter—the kind of Democrat leaders needed to get behind a tough proposal—the bill died.

Governor Ritter's spokesperson repeatedly declined to make the governor available for an interview for this story. Left unexplained, it is surprising that Ritter supports capital punishment. Ritter has said that if Roe v. Wade were overturned, he would sign a bill banning abortion, provided it had exceptions for rape, incest, and the mother's health—a bold statement for a Democrat. As governor, he instituted a pragmatic, centrist agenda that looks at the cost-effectiveness of government programs. He knows that some Coloradans support capital punishment, but wilt under the life-or-death pressure inside the courthouse. "Our experience in Denver, at least," Ritter told the University of Colorado Law Review in the late 1990s, "is that some juror or jurors...are not just awed by [the decision], they're overwhelmed by it."

Judging by the history of Nathan Dunlap's case, it's most likely that his remaining appeals will drag on for a few more years, that his legal hopes will be unsuccessful, and that either a first-term or second-term Governor Bill Ritter will one day find a clemency petition on his desk. Ritter will be faced with a choice: He could allow Dunlap to be executed, or he could intercede and grant Dunlap life in prison. However, as governor, Ritter has the constitutional power to commute Dunlap's sentence now. Dunlap could do no more harm, maybe receive some treatment for his mental illness, perhaps some counseling, perhaps from a prison missionary.

If Ritter's "strong reservations" and "personal doubts" about the death penalty motivate him to do so, he could also help pass legislation abolishing capital punishment statewide. Such a decision could affect his political future. Political observers see Ritter, like Senator Ken Salazar and Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, as the kind of moderate Western politician that will be impervious to the Republican attack machine and able to helm the future Democratic Party.

Back in 1995, when the Colorado legislature was weighing the idea of creating that three-judge panel to impose death sentences rather than leaving it up to juries, Ritter gave the Rocky Mountain News his thoughts on the subject. "It is a traumatic decision to confront," Ritter said. "But the decision made in the voting booth is so far removed from one a jury must make when they look across the bar at a human being. Until you've been in that situation you can't imagine the enormity of it."

Governor Ritter is not removed from the enormity of Nathan Dunlap. And if the convicted killer is executed, it will be no accident. The governor could wash his hands of the case, taking shelter in the fact that Dunlap is not the innocent man young Ritter struck while driving a truck on a Catholic service mission in Zambia. Or Ritter could see Dunlap, like Chinyama, as a life. Regardless, unlike that fatal tragedy in Zambia, this time around Ritter can see the human being in his path.