CENTENNIAL, Colo. (AP/CBS4) – A judge on Wednesday chose late August for the execution of a man convicted of killing four people at a Colorado pizza restaurant in 1993.
The judge said Nathan Dunlap could be sentenced the week of Aug. 18 but also set a hearing on June 10 to hear arguments from Dunlap’s attorneys over the constitutionality of the death penalty.
Dunlap would be the first person executed in Colorado in 16 years.
Dunlap’s attorneys had argued it was too soon to set an execution date. They said his death sentence was meant to be carried out only after he completed a 75-year sentence for robbery.
Separately, they are asking the Colorado Supreme Court to rule that under state law, the Department of Corrections must first get public input on its procedure of using lethal injections for executions.
The Colorado Court of Appeals had sided with the state, which argued that developing the execution procedure fell under the duties of the prisons director and didn’t require public input.
Dunlap’s attorneys also argue that making an inmate wait on death row for decades facing the possibility of execution is cruel and unusual punishment.
Dunlap, 38, was convicted in 1996 of killing four employees who were cleaning a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in the Denver suburb of Aurora after hours. Three of the victims were teenagers. Dunlap, then 19, had recently lost a job at the eatery.
Though the judge set a week when Dunlap could be executed, it is up to Roger Werholtz, interim head of the Colorado Department of Corrections, to set the exact day.
Dunlap could avoid execution if Gov. John Hickenlooper grants him clemency. Hickenlooper plans to meet privately in coming days with victims’ families, attorneys, law enforcement and others regarding Dunlap, spokesman Eric Brown said.
Bob Crowell, whose daughter Sylvia was among those killed, said he and his wife were scheduled to meet with Hickenlooper on Friday. Crowell said he hoped Hickenlooper wouldn’t grant clemency.
“We’ve had hearings and delays and so forth, so we’ll see what happens, but it’s nice to have a date to at least work with,” Sylvia Crowell’s mother Marg Crowell said.
Dunlap, with his hair in long dreadlocks, appeared in court Wednesday wearing glasses, a blue shirt, blue tie and gray pants.
“Nathan Dunlap received the fairest of trials, he had the best of lawyers, and there’s only one punishment that’s appropriate for him, and it’s death,” former Dunlap prosecutor Eva Wilson said.
His lawyers’ battle to save his life is drawing to a close at a time of high emotions and political tension surrounding gun violence nationwide.
The man who would have set Dunlap’s execution date, state corrections director Tom Clements, was shot and killed at his home on March 19, allegedly by a former inmate who later died in a shootout with Texas authorities.
James Holmes, the man accused of opening fire on a packed movie theater last July and killing 12 people, is awaiting trial on murder charges in the same suburban Denver courthouse complex where Dunlap’s hearing took place. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
Colorado this year approved laws extending background checks on gun buyers and limiting the capacity of ammunition magazines, partly in response to the theater shootings. But two weeks ago, the U.S. Senate rejected an expansion of federal background checks in the wake of the December shootings at a Connecticut school that left 26 dead.
Colorado’s last execution was in 1997 when Gary Lee Davis was put to death for his conviction in a 1986 slaying. In 2003, three inmates had their death sentences commuted to life in prison without parole after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juries, not judges, should impose capital punishment.
Three men are now on Colorado’s death row – Dunlap, Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray. Each was sentenced by a jury.
– By Dan Elliott, AP Writer
Associated Press writer P. Solomon Banda contributed to this report from Centennial, Colo.
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