Colorado hearing may signal last chance to halt Nathan Dunlap execution
Today — 6,671 days after he murdered four people and gravely wounded a fifth at an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese restaurant — Nathan Dunlap will see perhaps the best chance he has left to live.
Dunlap's attorneys will argue today before a three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver that Dunlap's death sentence should be overturned. They contend that he is mentally ill and that his trial lawyers failed to adequately represent him.
The hearing marks the beginning of the last stages for the final guaranteed appeal of his death-penalty conviction. And it comes with a recognition from Dunlap's defenders that their chances to spare him are growing short.
"Nathan Dunlap is running out of time. This is his last, best chance," said attorney David Lane, who has defended condemned inmates but is not directly involved in Dunlap's appeals. "If he loses here, his odds of being executed skyrocket."
But as time pinches more tightly for Dunlap, it drags for the families of the people he killed.
Marj and Bob Crowell intend to be in the courtroom to listen to the arguments. Their daughter, Sylvia, was 19 years old when Dunlap shot her from behind while she helped close the restaurant for the night. This December will mark 19 years since her murder.
Dunlap also killed Ben Grant and Colleen O'Connor, both 17, and Margaret Kohlberg, 50.
"That hurt is still going on," Bob Crowell said. "And we are somewhat anxious that somebody is going to throw a monkey wrench in there and he is not going to be executed."
"In many ways," Marj Crowell said of the hearing, "it will be like salt in the wound."
Of all the ways to measure the cost of the death penalty in Colorado, perhaps the most dramatic is in time.
It has been 15 years since Colorado executed someone. That execution was the state's first in 30 years.
Dunlap, who was 19 when he committed the murders, has spent nearly half his life on death row.
Since Dunlap was sentenced, courts have tossed the death sentences of six Colorado death-row inmates for various reasons. A seventh died during his appeal. For a time, Dunlap was the only inmate awaiting execution.
"Nothing going on in here," Dunlap told The Denver Post in 1997, describing his life on death row. "Nothing to think about."
Nobody knows how much money the state and federal governments have spent simultaneously arguing for Dunlap's death and appealing for his life. Since his arrest, Dunlap has been represented by court-appointed private attorneys or public defenders. State and local prosecutors have responded to all his appeals.
Staffers at the Colorado attorney general's office have spent 8,340 hours — close to $500,000 in staff time — working on Dunlap's cases in various capacities, according to figures provided by the office. Court-appointed private attorneys have been paid $186,000 for work on his state appeals alone, according to the state Office of the Alternate Defense Counsel.
Since the execution of Gary Davis in 1997, Colorado has spent millions of dollars — currently as much as $1 million per year, according to a 2009 fiscal analysis — on death-penalty matters, without executing anyone.
Economic concerns nearly undid capital punishment in the state in 2009, when lawmakers came within a single vote of repealing the death penalty. Lisa Cisneros, executive director of Coloradans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said the state could use its resources more wisely without capital punishment — perhaps to strengthen efforts to solve cold-case murders.
"It costs the state a lot of money," she said. "What could we do with that money?"
Colorado Attorney General John Suthers dismissed the fiscal concerns. He said the amount his office spends on the death penalty is small in comparison to the millions it spends per year responding to other appeals. And he argued that for some crimes, death is the only just punishment.
"I believe there are a certain number of cases when most people would conclude that life in prison is an inadequate punishment," Suthers said.
These arguments are more personal for the families of Dunlap's victims. But that does not mean they are more conclusive.
The feeling is best summed up by Kohlberg's daughter, Rebecca Oakes, whose mother was the last person Dunlap killed in his rampage before making off with $1,500, some game tokens and several cheap keychains.
"I'm not awaiting Mr. Dunlap's death sentence," she said. "But I am awaiting his impending obscurity and inconsequentiality. How he ultimately dies is completely irrelevant to me."