05/22/2013 01:59 pm ET Updated Jul 22, 2013

Nathan Dunlap Death Penalty Case: Hickenlooper Grants A Reprieve, Not Clemency

Convicted death row inmate Nathan Dunlap was granted a temporary reprieve rather than clemency.

In an executive order issued by Gov. John Hickenlooper Wednesday, the governor said:

It is a legitimate question whether we as a state should be taking lives. Because the question is about the use of the death penalty itself, and not about Offender No. 89148, I have opted to grant a reprieve and not clemency in this case.

Click here to read Gov. Hickenlooper's complete executive order.

Dunlap was sentenced to death over 15 years ago, but his execution had been looming just three months away. An Arapahoe County judge scheduled the execution date for the week of Aug. 18 after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Dunlap's appeal.

Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler, who last week wrote a strong rebuttal to Dunlap's clemency appeal, came out strongly against Hickenlooper's decision.

"There's going to be one person, one person in this system who goes to bed with a smile on their face tonight," Brauchler said during a demonstration Wednesday afternoon at the Capitol with other death penalty supporters. "And that's Nathan Dunlap. And he's got one person to thank for that smile. That's Governor John Hickenlooper."

During a 2 p.m. press conference, Hickenlooper admitted that he thought the "majority of the victims were disappointed" with his decision.

"The knife that's been in my back for 20 years was just twisted by the governor," Bob Crowell, whose daughter, Sylvia, was killed by Dunlap told The Denver Post after the press conference.

Defending his decision, Hickenlooper told reporters, "This is different from any other punishment." During the press conference Hickenlooper also cited the state's slain director of the Department of Corrections as having been "adamantly against the death penalty."

"Key issues obviously are, our system of capital punishment is imperfect and there's an inherent level of inequity. At such a level of punishment, there is [a need for] perfection," Hickenlooper said, adding that if Colorado is going to be a state that exercises capital punishment, "the system should be flawless."

During the press conference however Hickenlooper only referred to Dunlap as "Offender No. 89148" and said he would not be referring to him by name because "I don't think he needs any more notoriety."

Dunlap was convicted of murdering four employees at an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese's restaurant in 1993. He was convicted by a jury in 1996 and sentenced to death, and he would have been the first person executed by the state of Colorado in over 15 years.

Although he said he respected the jurors' decision, the governor revealed to the media some of the questions he'd been grappling with in the midst of his decision.

"Is it just and moral to take this person's life? Is is a benefit to the world?"

In response to a reporter's question whether he was deferring the decision of Dunlap's fate to a future governor, Hickenlooper said he was not.

"The next governor does not have to do anything," Hickenlooper said, adding that another governor could decide to go ahead with Dunlap's execution, or extend the reprieve indefinitely.

At this point, Hickenlooper argued that Dunlap was "no risk to society" in prison.

"The point of having a temporary reprieve rather than clemency is out of respect to... the rule of law in the state of Colorado. And we're not overturning that," Hickenlooper said.

Shortly after the governor's press conference, Dunlap's attorneys issued a statement:

We agree with Governor Hickenlooper’s well-reasoned decision to grant Nathan Dunlap a reprieve and indefinitely stay his execution. There has been widespread and diverse support from hundreds of people and organizations in Colorado who support permanently commuting Nathan Dunlap’s sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

As the Governor notes in his statement, ‘Colorado's system for capital punishment is not flawless.’ Faith leaders, civil rights organizations, former judges and prosecutors, academics and many others have expressed serious concerns about Colorado’s capital punishment system, which is unfair in its application of the death penalty. Colorado’s broken death penalty system reflects racial discrimination, geographic concentration, and is used in an arbitrary manner.

The Governor also recognizes that the death penalty is not a deterrent, and ‘is not making our world a safer or better place.’ Further, as the Governor explains, ‘Colorado is not equipped to carry out a death sentence.’

Given the problems with Colorado’s use of capital punishment and the apparent inability of the Colorado Department of Corrections to move forward with a legal execution, Governor Hickenlooper made a fair and correct decision to indefinitely stay Mr. Dunlap’s execution.

In an interview by phone with The Huffington Post, ACLU of Colorado Director Nathan Woodliff-Stanley said that his organization was also pleased with Hickenlooper's decision and hope that it will attract public dialogue about use of the death penalty.

"I have great sympathy for the victims, I can't speak for them or tell them how they should feel -- it's a horrible thing -- but I can only imagine that if the execution were going forward, the attention that would have been paid to Nathan Dunlap over the next few months -- and him specifically -- and people speaking out on his behalf, I can imagine that would have been very painful [for the victims' families]," Woodliff-Stanley said, speaking about what he calls "the celebrity effect" of the death penalty.

"There's really no just way to make [the death penalty] quick and efficient," Woodliff-Stanley said. "I actually think that the whole process of the death penalty is actually cruel to victims' families as well as being a cruel form of punishment, in and of itself."

The governor's executive order is expected to stand until another governor takes it up again, but for his part Hickenlooper said, "I think it's highly unlikely that I will revisit it."