Mike Littwin: Death penalty politics, gutsy and easy
August 28, 2014
The death penalty story is back. Gov. John Hickenlooper and Complete Colorado joined forces — sort of — to once again put the issue front and center in the governor’s race.
Hickenlooper’s part was in giving a clumsy answer to a hypothetical question about Nathan Dunlap in a not-yet-aired CNN interview on capital punishment. And Complete Colorado — a conservative website — was the one that got hold of the unreleased audio featuring the clumsy answer.
The story is this: Hickenlooper was asked in an interview — before Bob Beauprez was nominated — what he’d do if the election came down to a Tancredo-like opponent running on an “elect me and we’ll kill this guy” platform and, in doing so, managed to win. Hickenlooper said it would be “unacceptable” to turn a human life — even Dunlap’s life — into “a political football” and that any candidate who tried it would fail. But he said if it did happen, one option would be to grant Dunlap “full clemency” before he left office.
So it begins anew. And while there’s nothing funny about the death penalty, of course, there is some major irony here.
Hickenlooper has been hammered for granting Dunlap a temporary reprieve. The knock has been that he failed to be a “leader” (read: show some guts) by going the reprieve route — instead of granting clemency — and thereby leaving the final decision to some future governor. And now that Hickenlooper has said he might grant “full clemency’? Yeah, we’ll assume he has failed to show leadership again (read: show some guts) because, well, it’s not exactly clear why.
There are two things we can be sure of, though.
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One, the governor’s race won’t be decided by Nathan Dunlap or the death penalty. That’s why when Beauprez talks about Dunlap, he always plays the Hickenlooper leadership card. And the angle on this story is that Hickenlooper has said he wouldn’t revisit the Dunlap decision.
Two, the strangest part of this is that granting Dunlap a reprieve from the death penalty may have been the gutsiest thing Hickenlooper has done in his political life.
The easiest course would have been to let Dunlap die. Only the diehard anti-death-penalty people — most of them Democratic-voting liberals anyway — would have objected. There is no Dunlap constituency. There is no doubt of his guilt or of the horror of his crimes. There would be no political cost for Hickenlooper to pay.
Hickenlooper had every out. He had said he was pro-death penalty when he ran for governor in 2010. He had helped quash a bill that would have ended capital punishment in Colorado. He must have realized if the bill had become law, it would have allowed him to share the responsibility with the legislature.
Instead, it was all on him. He called the victims’ family members to tell them his decision, knowing how disappointed, and angry, some of them would be. Then he called a news conference to explain his decision to everyone else.
He talked about how hard the decision was, but how, in the end, he felt he had no choice. He said the reason he chose a reprieve instead of clemency was that the decision was not about Dunlap, but about Hickenlooper’s growing doubts on the efficacy of capital punishment.
“Is it just and moral?” Hickenlooper asked that day. “We make a decision to take this person’s life. Is it a benefit to the world?”
Soon after, there would be botched executions in Oklahoma and Arizona, which could only have made the issue more difficult. And just weeks ago, Hickenlooper said in an interview on KDVR-TV that he is now opposed to the death penalty. Unlike Hickenlooper’s gun fiasco, this time he would own his decision.
It’s no problem to find real gutlessness on the death penalty issue. Go back to 1992 for a prime example when Bill Clinton was running for president and made his infamous decision, as governor of Arkansas, to go ahead with the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, who had turned the gun on himself after killing a police officer and blown away part of his brain.
The funny/ironic thing is that Hickenlooper is often too, uh, conciliatory. He has a weakness for wanting everyone to like him. The embarrassing talk with the sheriffs about the gun-control bills — that was Hickenlooper at his vacillating worst.
The Dunlap decision was nothing like that. If you’re looking for politicians taking the easy way out, you had only to watch any of the Republican gubernatorial debates and listen to all the candidate guarantee they would execute Dunlap as quickly as possible. You can only wonder if any of them had done the hard work of actually studying the case.
In any event, the timing is good for Beauprez. Hickenlooper has clearly made some real strides on the leadership front by pulling together the Great Fracking Wars Compromise. The economy is improving. Unemployment is down.
But Dunlap is still alive. And even though the Hickenlooper campaign would say nothing has changed on Dunlap, the CNN interview will soon be on the air. And just to get you primed, Beauprez has already released a 60-second Web video. It just may be political football season after all.