In March, Colorado came close to becoming the 19th state to abolish the death penalty, but the bill failed after Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) voiced opposition and suggested a possible veto. A few months later, Colorado’s death penalty is still firmly in place, and the state is poised to complete what would be only the second execution in 45 years (the last was in 1997). Few dispute that Nathan Dunlap committed a horrific crime and murdered several people at a Chuck E. Cheese. But judges, university professors, and other prominent state leaders are urging Gov. Hickenlooper to commute Dunlap’s sentence, both because crucial errors that defined his trial may have led him to get a harsher sentence than others, and because killing anyone under the perverted state system would be a miscarriage of justice. According to letters filed with Hickenlooper’s office:
All three people on death row are black men. In a state that is only 4.3% African American, Colorado’s death row is 100% African American.
All three men on death are from the same one county, out of Colorado’s 64.
All three men committed their crime when they were under the age of 21.
Two law professors who studied Colorado’s application of the death penalty concluded it was unconstitutional, after finding that prosecutors pursue the death penalty in less than one percent of the cases where it is an option, and that the state failed to set “clear statutory standards for distinguishing between the few who are executed and the many who commit murder.”
“It appears that race, geography and youth largely determines who gets the death penalty in Colorado,” wrote a group of NAACP leaders in a letter urging Gov. Hickenlooper to grant clemency. They note that not a single black juror served on the panel that sentenced Dunlap to death.
In addition to the injustices that define the Colorado system, a group of former Colorado judges also point out that Dunlap’s bipolar disorder and psychotic tendencies were not even mentioned at trial. In fact, according to their letter, Dunlap’s lawyer told the jury that there was no explanation for his violence.
The judges add that “no clear evidence exists that the death penalty deters violent crime. What it does in our current system, as in this case, is to drain our judicial system of millions of dollars as mandatory appeals drag on for decades.” Studies have shown that the death penalty does not lower the homicide rate. In fact, the murder rate is lower in states without the death penalty.
Hickenlooper says he continues to wrestle with the death penalty, and whether to commute Dunlap’s sentence.