Updated: Thu, 23 May 2013 13:01:38 GMT | By Tracy Connor, Staff Writer, NBC News

Colorado governor blasted for death-penalty reprieve in Chuck E. Cheese murders



Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper says he will block the execution of convicted Chuck E. Cheese massacre killer Nathan Dunlap for as long as he is in office.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper says he will block the execution of convicted Chuck E. Cheese massacre killer Nathan Dunlap for as long as he is in office.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is under fire for his decision to block the execution of man convicted of massacring four people at a Chuck E. Cheese in Aurora, Colo., two decades ago.

The Democrat has vowed not to sign a death warrant for Nathan Dunlap as long as he's in office, even though he declined to back an outright repeal of capital punishment two months ago.

Hickenlooper's decision on Dunlap — a day before lawyers for Aurora movie-theater massacre suspect James Holmes were due in court to challenge the death-penalty statute — infuriated some victims' relatives and law-enforcement officials.

"He should die," former Aurora Police Officer Dan Jones, who was the first to arrive at Chuck E. Cheese the night of Dec. 14, 1993, told NBC station KUSA.

"What he did was horrific. And now 20 years later...the governor passes the buck."

Bob Crowell, whose 19-year-old daughter Sylvia was one of those killed, called Hickenlooper a "chicken governor."

"We've waited an awful long time," Crowell said after a heated conference call with the governor on Wednesday. "It's a little like carrying a knife in my back. Today, that night was severely twisted."

Colorado has had the death penalty since 1977, although only one person has been put to death since then and there are just three on Death Row.

Dunlap, who ambushed the restaurant workers after he was fired, was scheduled for an Aug. 18 execution. Hickenlooper signed an executive order that will remain in effect at least until his first term ends in 2015.

The governor is running for re-election, and his critics accused him of trying to have it both ways on the divisive death penalty issue.

"It's not a perfect decision and I recognize that," he told KUSA. "But I think the reasons we are doing it this way override that lack of closure [for the victims' families]."

Hickenlooper said he did not support a bill to repeal capital punishment earlier in the year because he did not want to force that decision on his constituents.

At the same time, he said, he could not in good conscience let Dunlap be put to death when studies show execution is not a deterrent to crime and is often applied inconsistently.

“It’s hard to defend the death penalty," he said.

Dunlap's lawyers had asked Hickenlooper to commute his sentence to life in prison without parole, but he declined to do that, leaving open the possibility for his successor to overturn the executive order and send the 39-year-old to the death chamber.

Araphoe County District Attorney George Brauchler said Hickenlooper's move would please few people.

"One person will go to bed with smile on his face and that's Nathan Dunlap," Brauchler said.

Brauchler is seeking the death penalty for the man accused in Aurora's bloodiest crime, the murder of 12 people at a midnight "Batman" screening last July.

James Holmes' lawyers will be in court Thursday to challenge the capital punishment statue on the grounds that it makes an insanity plea untenable.

They said that certain conditions Holmes must accept to mount an insanity defense would hamper their ability to argue he should be spared death during the sentencing phase if he's convicted.

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