Death Penalty: Not Just Another Prisoner

July 29 2014, 10:15 AM

It has been nearly six years since 5280 published “Politics of Killing,” an in-depth investigation into Colorado’s use—or, more accurately, non-use—of the death penalty. At press time, Bill Ritter was governor, Peyton Manning played in Indianapolis, and Union Station was filled with quaint old wooden benches.

Today, plenty has changed in the Centennial State. Former Denver mayor John Hickenlooper is governorPeyton Manning wears orange, and Union Station is now the hub for downtown’s continued revitalization. And Colorado has still not used the ultimate punishment, capital punishment, to kill a prison inmate since 1997.

Why does that matter? On Sunday, August 10 September 7 at 8 p.m., CNN plans to broadcast the latest episode in its “Death Row Stories” series, which focuses on Nathan Dunlap. In December 1993, Dunlap walked into an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese and shot five people, ultimately killing Colleen O’Connor (17), Benjamin Grant (17), Sylvia Crowell (19), and Marge Kohlberg (50). He was sentenced to death in 1996 and has spent more than 6,000 days on death row after his plea offer for life without parole was denied. As Patrick Doyle and I wrote in “Politics of Killing:”

“‘If Nathan Dunlap [had been permitted to] plead guilty to life without parole, he would have faded into obscurity years ago," says [defense attorney] David Lane. "He'd be doing his life sentence without the possibility of parole. There would have been no trial that cost millions. There would have been no appellate process that's cost millions. He would have been another prisoner in the system.’ Instead, Nathan Dunlap entered the languishing, confusing, stop-and-go, and enormously costly appeals process.” 

Now, Offender Number 89148 is not just another prisoner. Because of a temporary reprieve issued by Governor Hickenlooper last summer, he’ll remain on death row indefinitely. Or, at least, until Hickenlooper is no longer sitting behind the governor’s desk at the state capitol. (In the past year, some Republican candidates have vowed to kill Dunlap if elected to the state’s top job.)

Plenty of Coloradans were flummoxed by Hickenlooper’s indecision. Some argued that Dunlap had exhausted all of his legal appeals, and it was time for the governor to enforce Colorado law. Others raised concerns about how a legal case had become a political hot potato.

The “Death Row Stories” episode follows the Dunlap case from that horrific December night to present day and interviews a wide cast of characters, including victim’s families, John Hickenlooper, former governor Ritter, and Arapahoe County district attorney George Brauchler. (Full disclosure: I also make an appearance.) Regardless of your personal opinion on capital punishment—if you are undecided, watch the entire “Death Row Stories” series—the wide spectrum of voices in the hour-long special will help continue discussion of the ultimate punishment. It’s a conversation that will focus on Dunlap and dominate the 2014 gubernatorial election. 

UPDATE: CNN's schedule has changed and the episode will be rescheduled. In the meantime, watch this trailer.

Follow senior editor Natasha Gardner on Twitter.