by Robert A. Waters
Murder victims don’t vote, so it’s easy for politicians to ignore their cries for justice.
Corrupt Illinois Governor George Ryan commuted the sentences of 167 death row inmates in Illinois. Although he became a darling of liberals, and was even nominated for a Nobel Prize, it didn’t stop him from being convicted of racketeering, conspiracy, and fraud. He is currently serving a six-and-a-half year sentence.
On the day he left office, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour pardoned four killers. The state Supreme Court ruled that he was within his rights, even though families of the victims complained bitterly. Barbour’s motive seemed to be that these inmates worked around the governor’s mansion and ingratiated themselves to him and his staff.
Now we have the Nathan Dunlap case. As this multiple murderer neared execution, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper indefinitely delayed his date with death. As long as Hickenlooper is governor, Dunlap can breathe easy. Meanwhile, protests of the victim's families are ignored.
Here’s what happened to land Dunlap on Colorado’s Death Row.
At closing time on December 14, 1993, employees at Chuck E. Cheese in Aurora began cleaning up. Dunlap, 19, a former employee, entered the restaurant armed with a .25-caliber semi-automatic handgun. He’d been fired the week before, and was angry. He silently approached nineteen-year-old Sylvia Crowell from behind. The part-time college student was busy clearing the salad bar when Dunlap placed the gun to her head and fired. With one shot she was dead.
Vacuuming the floor, Ben Grant, a seventeen-year-old high school senior, never heard the first gunshot. Soon he lay on the floor dying.
The first two murders had been ambush attacks. But Colleen O’Connor, also 17, saw Dunlap coming. She dropped to her knees and implored him to let her live. “Don’t shoot,” she exclaimed. “I won’t tell.” Dunlap, unfazed, fired again. O’Connor dropped dead on the blood-soaked floor.
Bobby Stephens had a seven-month-old baby at home. Working alone in the kitchen, he heard the gunshots, but wrote them off as balloons popping. Then the killer walked in, surprising Stephens--a bullet to the face knocked him to the floor.
Manager Margaret Kohlberg, 50, sat in her office tallying the receipts. At gunpoint, Dunlap forced her to open the safe. After taking more than $1500, he shot her twice, including a “kill-shot” to the head as she lay bleeding out.
The last place most people would expect this kind of violence would be Chuck E. Cheese, a fun-filled game room where children enjoyed birthday parties and outings with mom and dad. The restaurant’s staff in Aurora worked hard to ensure an enjoyable, positive experience for each child. Now, in one chilling act, Nathan Dunlap had left five employees for dead, then drove to his girlfriend’s house for a night of hot sex.
One victim, however, survived. Bobby Stephens, who had a bullet lodged in his jaw, informed police that the killer was a former worker named Nathan Dunlap.
Citizens of Colorado were outraged. While the death penalty is rarely invoked in this liberal enclave, residents demanded the ultimate justice.
The crime was a brutal, heinous act, and there was no question as to the guilt of Dunlap, but it still took twenty years for his case to wind through the system. Finally, in 2013, the killer had no appeals left. While his attorneys attempted to persuade several appellate judges that Dunlap suffered from a mental illness, none bought that argument. A pardon or stay by Hickenlooper would be the mass murderer’s only chance.
And it happened. Citing several reasons, such as alleged racism and his belief that capital punishment is not a deterrent, Hickenlooper took the coward's way out.
While the governor is being praised by many for staying Dunlap's execution, families of the victims are left to suffer the distress of knowing their loved one’s lives meant little to him.
Bobby Stephens, the sole survivor of the massacre, said: “My current reaction is, I feel as if the wind has been kicked straight out of me. I feel that this is all about Nathan right now. I feel that Nathan has received more rights and more privileges than any of the victim's families or myself.”
One of the jurors who voted to put Dunlap to death may have said it best: “If one person can take what a juror came up with and set it aside, then there is no system. Why do we need juries?”