In the crosshairs of conscience: John Kitzhaber's death penalty reckoning

To cope with his dread, John Kitzhaber opened his leather-bound journal and began to write.
It was a little past 9 on the morning of Nov. 22, 2011. Gary Haugen had dropped his appeals. A Marion County judge had signed the murderer's death warrant, leaving Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor, to decide Haugen's fate. The 49-year-old would soon die by lethal injection if the governor didn't intervene.
Kitzhaber was exhausted, having been unable to sleep the night before, but he needed to call the families of Haugen's victims.
"I know my decision will delay the closure they need and deserve," he wrote.
The son of University of Oregon English professors, Kitzhaber began writing each day in his journal in the early 1970s. The practice helped him organize his thoughts and, on that particular morning, gather his courage.
Kitzhaber first dialed the widow of David Polin, an inmate Haugen beat and stabbed to death in 2003 while already serving a life sentence fo…

Colorado: Hickenlooper should commute Nathan Dunlap's sentence and lead on death penalty debate

If Colorado's courts won't allow Nathan Dunlap's legal team to lobby Gov. John Hickenlooper for the life of their client, we'll do it for them.

Hickenlooper - as we've said before - should commute Dunlap's death sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

As Hickenlooper noted when he granted Dunlap a temporary reprieve from his August 2013 execution date, the death penalty "has not been fairly or equitably imposed." 

We praised the governor's political courage to spare Dunlap's life, despite polling that showed Colorado voters supported the killer's execution and the continued use of the death penalty.

The governor also promised at the time, however, to lead a statewide conversation about the death penalty.

But that was almost 4 years ago.

Dunlap and the families of his victims have sat in limbo. And that conversation has not formally taken place.

Now Hickenlooper has about 18 months to decide the fate of the man convicted in 1993 of killing 4 Chuck E. Cheese's employees, and to fulfill his promise of bringing this criminal justice question to the forefront. 

Unfortunately, it's unlikely now to be Hickenlooper, a man who legitimately seemed on the fence about this issue, who frames this public policy debate, but George Brauchler, a declared candidate for governor in 2018 and an unabashed fan of the death penalty. 

Brauchler is district attorney for the 18th Judicial District, which includes Arapahoe County, where the crimes of all 3 Colorado men on death row were committed and prosecuted. He most recently tried the case against convicted mass-murderer James Holmes, and his team of attorneys unsuccessfully sought the death penalty.

This month, Dunlap's attorneys requested that a U.S. District Court judge authorize the defense team spend $750,000 to lobby Hickenlooper to commute Dunlap's sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole before Hickenlooper leaves office and his executive order can be undone.

U.S. District Court Senior Judge John Kane's assessment of the possibility of Hickenlooper taking action on this issue struck us as unprofessional and unwise, but not altogether untrue.

"You poke the Pillsbury Doughboy in the belly, there's a giggle and that's the end of it," Kane was quoted saying by The Denver Post's Kirk Mitchell. "All of this is because we have a present governor who is not making a decision. ... I'm not about to endorse the present situation. ...These are not legal issues."

Occasionally, like on the governor's campaign trail in 2014, or during court proceedings, Dunlap's precarious state between death by lethal injection and life in prison has come up. Hickenlooper's best chance to address the death penalty came in 2013 and 2014, when Democrats held both chambers of the Colorado General Assembly, but bills to address the issue have never gained traction, or outward support from Hickenlooper, including a bill this year that was voted down in the Republican-controlled Senate and hardly rose to the level of public discourse.

Kane is right in that Hickenlooper has failed to lead on the issue of the death penalty. That's a shame, because Colorado's death penalty needs to be repealed.

We wish the governor had made this issue more of a priority and championed the question during his tenure. He still could during the 2018 legislative session.

But that shortfall in leadership doesn't preclude the governor from doing the right thing and sparring Dunlap's life from becoming the issue voters are deciding at the ballot box in 2018.

Source: Denver Post, Editorial, April 29, 2017

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