DENVER – For nearly two months, Steve Cohen was known only as Juror Number 39.
A member of a jury in the 1996 murder trial of Nathan Dunlap, Cohen was one of only a handful of people in Colorado to weigh the merits of a man’s life. In the 38 years since Colorado reinstituted the death penalty, only one person has been executed, which occurred in 1997.
There are only three people currently on death row. One of those is Dunlap, who was set to be executed in August 2013. His fate rested in the hands of Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat whose position on the death penalty has “evolved” since 2010 when he last ran for governor.
Hickenlooper is now an opponent of capital punishment. But his position was unclear as the days quickly turned into nights leading to Dunlap’s execution. The governor could have signed the execution order and ended nearly 20 years of uncertainty. He also could have granted clemency and commuted the sentence to life in prison without parole.
But instead, Hickenlooper signed an unusual executive order in May 2013 granting a “temporary reprieve,” meaning he can change his decision, or a future governor can also change the order. The governor is facing re-election this fall, and the issue promises to loom large as the campaign heats up. Bob Beauprez, the Republican challenger for governor, has vowed to sign Dunlap’s execution order, if elected.
Enter Cohen, who said the moral and judicial components of weighing a man’s life have rested heavily on his soul for 18 years. When he heard the governor was going to possibly grant a reprieve, or even clemency, Cohen wrote to Hickenlooper, pleading with him to bring closure by signing the order for death by lethal injection.
In a recent interview with The Durango Herald, Cohen said he is still enraged and perplexed by what he calls an “inaction” by Hickenlooper.
“This guy has single-handedly ruined the judicial system as far as I’m concerned, and I don’t think he has the right,” Cohen said of Hickenlooper. “He wasn’t there to begin with.”
Dunlap, 19 years old at the time, had repeatedly admitted to killing Sylvia Crowell, Colleen O’Connor, Ben Grant and Margaret Kohlberg on Dec. 14, 1993, at an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant. Dunlap was also found guilty of attempting to kill Bobby Stephens.
The high-profile case was viewed as one of the first senseless mass-murder gun crimes to be watched closely by all of America.
Jurors were followed by armed guards to keep the public and media away. They weren’t allowed to discuss the merits of the case with anyone.
The deliberation was considered to be so important and soul-draining that jurors were allowed to seek guidance from religious leaders as well as psychologists.
Cohen said burdens were placed on the families of jurors and victims, some of which caused wounds that still have not healed.
He added that Dunlap’s guilt was never in question. It was the capital punishment sentencing phase that really was the difficult part.
“It was satisfying, it was gratifying that I could do something, and now it’s all going down the crapper,” said Cohen, who added that he has asked to attend Dunlap’s execution if it ever happens.
“I don’t have a mentality that I want to see death; I just want this guy to get what he deserves,” said Cohen.
While many of the victims’ families were angry with the governor’s decision, one family has stood by Hickenlooper. Gillian McNally, whose cousin was O’Connor, said executing Dunlap would not bring her justice or closure.
When Hickenlooper announced the reprieve, he called the decision personal, moral and thoughtful.
“Obviously this has weighed heavily on me. ... Part of the question was around this case, but also around the death penalty. ... Is it just and moral?” Hickenlooper asked at the time.
McNally agreed, saying, “I just don’t seek a justice system that looks for revenge.
“There is no justice for what he did,” added McNally, now a University of Northern Colorado professor. “I can’t have my cousin back. ... It really hurts my soul, but there is no justice for what he did.”
She believes the governor showed strength in issuing the reprieve.
“I could not believe he had the courage to listen to his heart and say, ‘I can’t do this on my watch,’ and honestly, if I were in his shoes, I would have made the same decision,” she said.
But attorney Eva Wilson, who prosecuted Dunlap and is now a senior chief deputy district attorney in the 1st Judicial District, said Hickenlooper has ignored the cries of the majority of victims’ families and diminished the exhausting work by jurors and prosecutors.
“It’s not a case of innocence. It’s not a case of anything else other than absolute guilt, and yet he decided to throw his hands up in the air and say, ‘Gee, I just don’t know,’” Wilson said. “I don’t think anyone gets to do that.”