Today — 6,671 days after he murdered 4 people and gravely wounded a 5th 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
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
"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
"In many ways," Marj Crowell said of the hearing, "it will be like salt in the
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 1st in 30 years.
Dunlap, who was 19 when he committed the murders, has spent nearly 1/2 his life
on death row.
Since Dunlap was sentenced, courts have tossed the death sentences of 6
Colorado death-row inmates for various reasons. A seventh died during his
appeal. For a time, Dunlap was the only inmate awaiting executio.
"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
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
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."