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Hickenlooper brings death penalty to front and center of gubernatorial campaign

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper Speaks at 2012 DNC
Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper Speaks at 2012 DNC
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

The death penalty has in many ways become the poster child for Governor John Hickenlooper’s political indecisiveness. After running as a pro death penalty candidate in 2010, he granted a “temporary reprieve” for Chuck E. Cheese shooter Nathan Dunlap – ensuring that the issue would only be fully decided after the midterm elections. In recently uncovered remarks in an unaired CNN interview, he made the connection between Dunlap’s execution and the election outcomes even stronger.

When Hickenlooper granted Dunlap a temporary reprieve, he essentially made the outcome of a 20 year old mass shooting case – and the fate of one person, and closure for victims’ families – dependent on the outcome of the 2014 elections. A GOP challenger would likely vote for the legal decision to be upheld and sign for the education, whereas Hickenlooper would either grant clemency or leave the decision to his successor in 2018.

By explicitly leaving the decision to Colorado’s next governor, Hickenlooper ensured the decision would factor into future elections.

In his CNN interview – with anti-death penalty actors Robert Redford and Susan Sarandon – the Colorado Democrat came out firmly against the death penalty, but he tied the specific issue of Dunlap’s clemency even more strongly to future election outcomes.

If Hickenlooper lost to a Republican candidate who made known his intention to continue with Dunlap’s execution – as all the GOP candidates this year did, including primary winner Bob Beauprez – Hickenlooper said he would grant the inmate full clemency during his last month in office.

If, however, Hickenlooper won, the issue would remain in political limbo to be decided by the next governor, meaning that the issue would come into play yet again in the 2018 elections. He has already decided that he opposes Dunlap’s execution, but will not grant clemency before one or possibly two or more elections.

In the CNN interview, though, Hickenlooper said “one man’s death should not be used as a political football.”

If the governor chose either to execute Dunlap or grant him clemency in 2013 when his execution was scheduled, or at some point before the election, the issue would not be a politicized one. By connecting it so directly to the election outcome – full and immediate clemency if Beauprez wins or continued limbo through the next election if Hickenlooper does – the incumbent democrat has ensured Dunlap’s will be the most politicized execution decision in history.

He kicked the ball to the Republicans.

For more articles by Sarah Tanksalvala, click here. For continuing notifications of Boulder County political news, subscribe to email alerts, or follow STanksalvala on Twitter.