NEW CASTLE — Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper angered many around the state with his May 22 “temporary reprieve” for convicted murderer Nathan Dunlap, including a local couple whose niece was one of Dunlap’s victims.
Michael O’Connor, who with his wife, Laurie, lived in Denver in 1993, told the Post Independent on Thursday that they both feel strongly Dunlap should pay the ultimate price for his crimes.
Dunlap, 38, was convicted in 1996 of murdering four people in a 1993 rampage at a Chuck E. Cheese outlet in a Denver suburb, apparently because he was angry over being fired from the restaurant a week earlier. He was sentenced to death three years later and has been on Colorado’s death row since.
Hickenlooper’s spokesman, reached by email on Thursday, declined to discuss the case with a reporter and instead referred questioners to the governor’s online statements about the decision (www.colorado.gov).
“The governor talked about the victims’ families at the press conference [on Wednesday] and in the Executive Order he signed, which can be found on our website,” wrote spokesman Eric Brown, in response to a reporter’s request for comment.
In his online statements, the governor maintained that judicial systems that use the death penalty “must operate flawlessly” to avoid putting an innocent person to death.
“Colorado’s system for capital punishment is not flawless,” the governor declared, citing a “recent study co-authored by several law professors” that indicated “death is not handed down fairly” in this state.
The death penalty is not uniformly applied to cases, Hickenlooper wrote, in that convicted criminals can either get long prison terms or the death penalty as a “result of happenstance,” in the words of one former judge cited in Hickenlooper’s message.
The governor also cast doubt on the availability of reliable drugs used for lethal injection, noting that Colorado makes “infrequent use and application of the death penalty.”
Hickenlooper’s decision means that Dunlap will remain alive at least until the end of Hickenlooper’s first term in office, which comes on Jan. 15, 2015.
Already the reprieve has produced political consequences, after Republican politician Tom Tancredo, a former congressman who unsuccessfully ran for the Colorado governor’s post in the last election, said on Thursday that he will run against Hickenlooper in 2014.
‘Out of touch’
Dunplap’s victims were the 50-year old night manager of the restaurant, Margaret Kohlbert, and three teenagers who worked at the restaurant at the time, including 17-year-old Colleen Rose O’Connor, niece of Laurie and Michael O’Connor, now residents of New Castle.
Michael O’Connor, whose brother, Dennis, was Colleen’s dad, told the Post Independent on Thursday that being reminded of the murder was “very painful,” explaining that he and his wife had known Colleen from birth and had “helped raise the kid. I baby-sat for her every night, Monday through Friday, when I got home from school.”
At the time, O’Connor said, he was attending classes at the Electronic Technical Institute in Denver. He and his wife were living near the family of Dennis O’Connor.
Speaking through obvious anger and grief that 20 years has not lessened, Michael O’Connor recalled learning about the murders that night from his mother, whom he said also helped to raise Colleen.
“He was a totally irresponsible punk, who answered to absolutely no one,” O’Connor said of Dunlap, who killed his victims by shooting them in the head, according to news reports at the time.
In addition to his anger at Dunlap, O’Connor was disgusted by Hickenlooper’s reprieve.
“I believe he’s got his head up his butt,” O’Connor said of the governor. “He doesn’t know what’s going on. He’s out of touch.”
Dunlap will remain in prison for the duration of the , and the governor was quoted as saying he is not likely to revisit his decision, meaning it will be up to some future governor to either keep the in place or overturn it.
O’Connor, who said he had not heard of the reprieve until a reporter called him, added that Dunlap is still a killer and does not deserve a reprieve.
“This guy is so capable of killing again, it’s not even funny,” O’Connor declared. “He’ll probably end up killing somebody in [prison].”
When asked what he would say to the governor if given the chance, O’Connor growled, “You’re out of your mind. You’re uninformed.”
He noted that he has mixed feelings about the death penalty in concept, “but not in all cases” and said he might contact the governor’s office himself to express his displeasure about the reprieve.