DENVER (AP) — Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper indefinitely delayed the execution of convicted killer Nathan Dunlap on Wednesday and said he was unlikely to allow it as long as he is governor.
Hickenlooper stopped short of converting the death sentence to life in prison, as Dunlap's lawyers had requested.
Hickenlooper, a Democrat, said he had doubts about the fairness of Colorado's death penalty system and about the state's ability to get the lethal drugs required for an execution.
Republicans derided his decision as no decision at all, with Attorney General John Suthers saying the reprieve guaranteed "continued suffering and delayed justice" for families of Dunlap's victims.
"He took a coward's way out," said Melinda Cromar, whose 19-year-old sister Sylvia Crowell was among those killed by Dunlap. "I am just so angry."
Dunlap, 38, was convicted and sentenced to die in 1996 for the ambush slayings of Crowell and three others in a Denver-area restaurant. Hickenlooper's action essentially guarantees Dunlap will survive through Jan. 13, 2015, the last day of Hickenlooper's first term. Hickenlooper plans to run for re-election, and the reprieve is sure to be a campaign issue.
Dunlap, whose execution was scheduled for the week of Aug. 18, had requested clemency, which would have removed the possibility of execution and changed his sentence to life without parole.
Dunlap could conceivably be executed one day if a Colorado governor lifts the reprieve.
Hickenlooper's announcement frustrated and angered the current top prosecutor in the district where Dunlap was convicted.
"He could have made a decision I disagreed with. He could have made a decision I agreed with. But to not make a decision is an injustice," District Attorney George Brauchler said.
"One person will go to bed with a smile on his face, and that's Nathan Dunlap, and that's due to one person," Brauchler said.
Madeline Cohen, one of Dunlap's attorneys, expressed relief.
"I'm very, very glad that the governor has decided not to go forward and has recognized how many problems there are in the system," she said.
Hickenlooper said he considered the decision carefully.
"We heard a variety of sides and obviously this has weighed heavily on me for well over a year now," he said at a news conference.
Dunlap has acknowledged fatally shooting four employees — three of them teenagers — who were cleaning a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant after hours in the Denver suburb of Aurora.
Dunlap, then 19, had recently lost a job there as a cook. On the night of Dec. 14, 1993, he hid in a bathroom until the restaurant closed, then shot and killed Crowell; Ben Grant, 17; Colleen O'Connor, 17; and Margaret Kohlberg, a 50-year-old mother who was on her first day on the job.
Each was shot in the head. A co-worker Bobby Stephens, then 20, was also shot in the head, but he survived and testified against Dunlap.
One victim was down on her knees and begging for her life when Dunlap shot her.
Dunlap lost his last mandatory appeal in February. His lawyers petitioned Hickenlooper for clemency and filed other lawsuits challenging the sentence and execution process.
In his reprieve, Hickenlooper said Colorado's capital punishment system is flawed, citing a study that showed the death penalty was sought and imposed inconsistently across the state.
He also said the state doesn't have the drugs in place to carry out an execution by lethal injection, and that many states and nations are repealing the death penalty.
Hickenlooper's reprieve order mostly referred to Dunlap by his state prison number.
"I don't use his name. I haven't with any of these mass killings because I don't think he needs any more notoriety," Hickenlooper said at the news conference.
Dunlap's attorneys previously released a video and written statement in which Dunlap apologized.
They also said he had undiagnosed bipolar disorder at the time of the shootings.
"Mr. Dunlap was grateful," his attorney Philip Cherner said after Hickenlooper's announcement. "His expressions of remorse were genuine. He is truly sad for what happened."
"This is not a day to celebrate," Cherner said.
"Mr. Dunlap faces the rest of his life in a cell that's about the size of two king-sized beds, and he gets out for about an hour a day."
Associated Press writers Nicholas Riccardi, Colleen Slevin, Catherine Tsai and Kristen Wyatt contributed to this report.
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