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Today, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper issued a temporary reprive for death row inmate Nathan Dunlap. But it's not because of anything Dunlap has — or hasn't — done. It's because Hickenlooper is questioning whether his state should be in the business of capital punishment at all.

Colorado's last execution was over a decade ago, and the state has existed in something of a limbo on the issue since then — capital punishment is on the books, but not a practicing part of the state's justice system. As the Atlantic's Andrew Cohen has noted, Hickenlooper's decision today was much anticipated. While, as he explains, the governor's order today is actually not that decisive on the issue of capital punishment itself, it has forced him to make a public statement on an issue he's previously dodged

In his executive order, Hickenlooper cites inequalities and "flaws" in the state's current capital punishment system for his reasoning behind the reprieve, which will delay Dunlap's execution indefinitely: 

“If the State of Colorado is going to undertake the responsibility of executing a human being, the system must operate flawlessly. Colorado’s system for capital punishment is not flawless. A recent study co-authored by several law professors showed that under Colorado’s capital sentencing system, death is not handed down fairly. Many defendants are eligible for capital punishment but almost none are actually sentenced to death. The inmates currently on death row have committed heinous crimes, but so have many others who are serving mandatory life sentences." 

The governor also mentions the current controversy surrounding the drugs required for a lethal injection in the state, as well as Colorado's sparing use of the punishment in the past. He continues: 

"It is a legitimate question whether we as a state should be taking lives,...Because the question is about the use of the death penalty itself, and not about Offender No. 89148, I have opted to grant a reprieve and not clemency in this case.”

In 1993, Nathan Dunlap killed four in an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese, as the Denver Post explains. His decision has already angered the families of some of those victims. For instance, Bob Cowell, whose daughter was killed in the restaurant, had this to say: 

"The knife that's been in my back . . . was just twisted by the governor...We have a chicken governor, making us a chicken state, inviting all would-be murderers to come to Colorado." 

Hickenlooper's decision on Dunlap has at least two further implications: on his political prospects, and on the state's decision against James Holmes, who faces 166 charges of murder and attempted murder after the Aurora cinema shooting. Hickenlooper is up for re-election in 2014, which means that Dunlap's reprieve is only guaranteed as long as Hickenlooper remains governor. As the Associated Press explains, his decision today will likely become a campaign issue, especially as prosecutors have decided to pursue the death penalty against James Holmes, keeping the issue in the news for some time. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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