EDITORIAL: Hickenlooper was right to stop Dunlap execution, and just as wrong to leave it limbo

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Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper needs to bring closure to the critical, unfinished business he started in 2013: End the death sentence for Nathan Dunlap.

At age 19, Dunlap murdered four fellow employees of an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant on Dec. 14, 1993. It was a horrendous and despicable crime carried out as vengeance for having been fired from the restaurant a few months earlier. Dunlap shot dead four fellow workers and critically wounded another.

He was convicted in an Arapahoe County court and sentenced to death in 1996.

After years of fruitless appeals played out, his execution was set for August 2013, about two years into Hickenlooper’s first term.

Rather than grant Dunlap clemency, Hickenlooper issued a temporary retrieve, postponing  the execution but not exchanging it for life in prison.

It was a mistake that Hickenlooper should now correct in the waning days of his tenure by granting Dunlap clemency. Hickenlooper’s final term ends early in January when Governor-elect Jared Polis is sworn in.

Hickenlooper’s underlying motivations for postponing Dunlap’s execution were honorable. So, too, were his probable political instincts.

Since his decision, Hickenlooper has been vocal about why he opposes the death penalty in the case of Dunlap and anyone facing it. The reasons are inarguable, universal and compelling.

The death penalty does not reduce the incidence of capital crimes anywhere in the United States. Ever. States that don’t impose the death penalty have the same relative incidence of murder as states that do impose execution.

And it’s obscenely expensive for states like Colorado. Years of mandatory and obligatory appeals and the extraordinary costs of keeping convicts on “death row” mean that taxpayers must pay out millions above what convicts cost who are sentenced to life in prison.

Just as compelling is the fact that even after long, expensive and emotionally grueling delays, the execution isn’t even carried out. In Colorado, currently there is no legal way for the death penalty to be imposed against Dunlap or anyone else, because the drugs for lethal injection aren’t legally available to the state.

But the biggest reason why  Dunlap or anyone else in Colorado shouldn’t be executed is because it’s morally and ethically repugnant. It’s murder, something that is rightfully illegal, no matter who or why the crime is carried out. It’s a barbaric crime imposed primarily by backward societies, such as Iran, Russia, China and North Korea.

Always politically cautious, we can give Hickenlooper the benefit of the doubt for looking for the easiest way through the quagmire. At the time, he had every reason to hope that Colorado would end capital punishment before the end of his tenure, making a permanent clemency order for Dunlap moot. At the time, even Nebraska had upended its capital punishment law, citing the cost and impracticality of the penalty.

It’s since reversed that, and a one-vote majority in the Colorado Senate kept bills focused on ending Colorado’s death penalty from ever having a real chance.

And so time has run out for Hickenlooper to do the right thing. Dumping this political hot potato into the lap of the next governor is cowardly and shortsighted. Hickenlooper has voiced presidential aspirations, and no doubt the Dunlap matter has been a consideration.

Hickenlooper is wrong to think that walking away from the Dunlap limbo-decision is a superior political ploy than completing clemency. If he doesn’t bring closure to the controversy, history and possible future voters will see him as ineffectual.

Hickenlooper should tap into the original moral objection and courage that prompted him to pause Dunlap’s execution — and stop it. Dunlap’s death sentence is just as wrong today as it was in 2013.

Life in prison for Dunlap is not just the righteous and rightful move for Hickenlooper, it’s really the only answer.